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Ian Dando
New Zealand Listener, February 2012

SIBELIUS, J.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (New Zealand Symphony, Inkinen) 8.572305
SIBELIUS, J.: Symphony No. 2 / Karelia Suite (New Zealand Symphony, Inkinen) 8.572704
SIBELIUS, J.: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (New Zealand Symphony, Inkinen) 8.572227
SIBELIUS, J.: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 / Finlandia (New Zealand Symphony, Inkinen) 8.572705

Other than his underwhelming climaxes in No 1, Inkinen hits the mark with all other six. In the finale to No 2, for instance…Inkinen brings a vitality to this long and repetitive shape I haven’t heard from others. It says much of him and the NZSO that this is one of the most consummate versions in a competitive market for Sibelius’s most popular symphony.

It’s the same with his No 3. String detail is crisp even in the difficult viola writing in the first movement. You won’t get a better No 3 on the market than this.

There is an interesting inverse correlation between popularity and greatness in Sibelius, which reaches its peak in No 4, to my mind his greatest work, yet his least popular. How well Inkinen portrays its desolate bleakness… Inkinen turns this into one of Sibelius’s most ominous moments.

Clarity is to the fore, too, in the popular No 5, with crisp woodwind detail and the swaggering positivity of what Donald Tovey called “Thor swinging his hammer” in the finale. The self-effacing No 6, with its pastoral serenity almost hiding its intellectual subtlety, is so modest it sounds chamber orchestra-like much of the time. Inkinen exposes its motivic interrelations well.

No 7’s powerful contraction of thought creates a sense of scale well beyond its 20-minute time frame. Its most sublime section, a chorale two-and-a-half minutes in that starts with divisi eight-part strings, is blossomed out endearingly by Inkinen. I imagine No 7 might be his personal favourite. © 2012 New Zealand Listener Read complete review

Michael Quinn
The Classical Review, December 2011

fresh, vivacious accounts of familiar music distinguished by illuminating attention to detail and playing of real verve and feeling…a reading of the Fourth Symphony that enabled “one [to] hear the music with clean ears”, while the Fifth was marked by “dignified, unforced music making.” At the price, an essential disc. © 2011 The Classical Review See complete list

Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, July 2011

I have not heard Inkinen’s earlier Naxos recording of Symphonies 1 and 3...but if this newcomer is any indication, his Sibelius is similar but more interesting than Sakari’s. The conductor’s control is total, and the performances are delineated, transparent, light in weight, evenly balanced between the instrumental choirs, and played with great concentration. I’m not sure how large an orchestra Inkinen is using, but the approach befits chamber music, though it bears little resemblance to the “small orchestra” set with Paavo Berglund leading the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Finlandia). I don’t care for that Berglund set, which I find too razor-sharp, and I do like what Inkinen has given us.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Andrew Achenbach
The Classical Review, March 2011

This is the fourth CD in Pietari Inkinen’s Sibelius series for Naxos (and the second in his cycle of the symphonies) and it more than maintains the superior standards set by its forebears. Not only does the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra respond with conspicuous skill and heartwarming application, its 30-year-old Finnish chief also conducts with a sure instinct, discernment and self-effacing maturity that continue to mark him out as out of the most naturally gifted young talents around.

The account of the Fourth Symphony pays handsome dividends in terms of painstaking preparation and thoughtful observation—one hears the music with clean ears, so to speak. The Tempo largo third movement is particularly impressive in its composure and concentration, the woodwind playing notably refined and eloquent, and if the tidy NZSO strings are lacking something in tonal clout and sheer muscle, they respond with an expressive fervor that is consistently engaging (Inkinen’s sensitive shaping of the long line is another of this stimulating performance’s very real pleasures.)

The finale, too, is splendidly lithe and purposeful, and although its devastating fff apex lacks the last ounce of clinching resolution, Inkinen’s deeply moving handling of the coda makes ample amends, the strings’ ppp tremolandi at fig. W, or 8’42”, distilling a spine-tingling mystery and the closing chords precisely mf dolce as marked in the score.

The reading of the Fifth is very nearly as impressive. Once again, Inkinen sees to it that no detail is fudged, maintaining striking focus and clarity across an intrepidly wide range of dynamic. The first movement’s awesome sense of organic growth is perceptively conveyed in Inkinen’s excitingly taut conception, the hazardous transition into the second half negotiated with seamless aplomb.

Perhaps a touch more charm and artless wonder might not have gone amiss in the middle movement (those gently tripping violins and violas from fig. B or 2’13” strike me as just a little deadpan), and in the finale some may (rightly) crave greater breadth (and nobility) of tone from the horns and trumpets. However, there’s absolutely no playing to the gallery in the symphony’s towering peroration—this is dignified, unforced music making. Note, too, how Inkinen pays heed to the Un pochettino stretto marking on the penultimate page right through to the double bar line (the mighty closing hammer blows for once bringing no loss of momentum.)

To sum up: an involving and thoroughly recommendable pair of performances. The sound is very truthful on the whole (at times the winds loom perhaps a little too closely) and the value for money obvious. Roll on the next installment!

Andrew Mellor
Classic FM, March 2011

The Music Here, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra arrives at the heart of Sibelius’s symphonic oeuvre. The ensemble opens with the chilling Fourth—spawned at the height of the composer’s battle with alcohol and debt—and the searing Fifth, inspired by his glimpsing of a flock of swans soaring upwards from the lake at Järvenpää. No two of Sibelius’s symphonic neighbours pose as striking a contrast as these do.

The Performance The Fourth has rare tension and foreboding—Inkinen isn’t afraid to let the silences breathe and the textures have a steely clarify. It’s just a shame he enforces a rallentando on the symphony’s final five chords that warms the narrative and seems to usher in a sudden sentimentality that Sibelius’s writing wholly avoids. The Fifth is structurally impressive; the first movement pivots on the initial ‘flight’ theme heard on legato trumpets (there’s great tension before it and huge release after it) while the moment of ascent in the finale comes off very well. Detail and clarity of counterpoint could, perhaps, have been finer.

The Verdict These are satisfying, well-built performances and the disc raises itself further with the acute atmosphere of its chilling Fourth symphony.

David Gutman
Gramophone, March 2011

A cool, restrained approach to Sibelius from the latest young Finnish conductor

As the principal exporter of a steady stream of distinguished conductors, Finland has much to be proud of. The wonder is that each of these nascent stars makes music in such different ways. Rather than forcibly wrenching Sibelius from his moorings in the Romantic tradition in the manner of Osmo Vanska, Pietrari Inkinen proves a relatively cool, self-effacing guide, eschewing originality for its own sake in the pursuit of sweet-tempered naturalness. You would never guess that this refined, rather intimate interpretation of the Fourth is the product of a 30-year-old. With generally spacious tempi preferred, albeit not as leisurely as Vanska’s in the slow movement, it is the restraint that impresses most. The massed strings can make a surprisingly warm, consoling sound when required, coached no doubt by Inkinen the skilled violinist. Showcasing his ability to elicit taut, expressive playing at low volume levels, the finale is treated more subjectively, spontaneous and fresh from start to finish, the ping of the glockenspiel preferred to the more intrusive alternative sonority of tubular bells.

Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, March 2011

In their second installment of Sibelius symphonies for Naxos, the young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra really do themselves proud with the composer’s Symphonies 4 and 5. If they chose this pairing for contrasts, they couldn’t have done better than program the brooding, pessimistic Fourth and the surging, optimistic Fifth on the same disc.

Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 certainly reflects Sibelius’ life at the time he wrote it. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer and had to face the prospect of his own mortality at a time when he was searching for a new direction in his music. It’s no mistake that the composer makes striking use in this symphony of musical history’s oldest dissonance, the tritone. It dominates the work, beginning with the sensational dark, growling phrase heard in the cellos, basses, and bassoons at the very opening, rising CDF# E over a hard unison C. Most of the themes involve the tritone. Heard in the collision between A minor and Eflat major as late as the work’s finale, that ancient interval shows it still has the ability to set our nerves on edge!

There is much brooding in the Fourth Symphony on man’s fate in the face of an impassive and indifferent nature, and Inkinen captures this mood beautifully. In no other symphony has Sibelius pared dramatic utterance and gesture down to its barest essentials. Both the Largo movement, which utilizes some material Sibelius originally intended for a dramatic presentation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven (another potent death symbol!) and the Allegro finale end suddenly, almost in midphrase, as if overcome by exhaustion amid a desolate landscape.

All the more striking by comparison, then, is Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in Eflat major, Op. 82. The opening movement has its blustery moments, initiating a sense of struggle but with a much more optimistic note than we heard in the Fourth. As a positive inspiration, Sibelius makes an unusual double exposition, combining material that he had originally intended for a scherzo into this opening movement, so that our hearts really leap when this moment occurs! As Inkinen and the NZSO take it, it seems so naturally spontaneous it belies completely the pains this symphony cost the composer: “It is as if God the Father had thrown down in mosaic pieces from heaven’s floor and asked me to put them back as they were.”

The second movement, Andante mosso, quasi allegretto, with its sunny, pastorale mood, seems incredibly simple and charming for this composer. But that sets us up for a whirlwind finale, Allegro molto, beginning with a galloping melody played tremolondo in the strings, giving way gradually to a swaying triple-time motif in the horns said to have been inspired by Sibelius’ hearing the calls of a flight of swans. An unforgettable finale cadence based on six powerful chords, each separated by silence, ends the work. In the present performance, this finale is absolutely stunning

While we’re at it, let’s recognize producer & engineer Tim Handley for his contribution. It adds to one’s pleasure to get real audiophile class sound at a budget price.

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, February 2011

The Fourth Symphony (1911) of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) is one of the man’s bleaker but more-characterful works. The music always reminds me of a vast, flat, icy plain, maybe in Lapland, brooding in silence. That’s the way young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen appears to see it, too, carving huge chunks of desolation from the music. It opens with a theme “as harsh as Fate,” as the composer described it, and Inkinen follows through.

The succeeding Allegro molto vivace, which Inkinen takes rather leisurely, brings a note of great serenity to the otherwise dark proceedings, but then it also turns slightly sinister (although never threatening).

The slow Largo section Sibelius originally labeled “The Thoughts of a Wayfarer.” It maintains the dour climate of the piece, with Inkinen emphasizing its mysterious nature at the expensive of capitalizing too much on its atmospheric mood shifts, instead interpreting it in a fairly static manner. In its favor, this establishes a good continuity in the music, even if it tends toward sameness.

While the final Allegro opens brightly, even cheerfully, promising a sudden change of temperament, it soon reverts to the desolation of the opening movement. Again, Inkinen is skillful at delineating these large, bleak landscapes.

Symphony No. 5, which Sibelius premiered in 1915 and revised in 1916 and again in 1919, is shorter than No. 4, here comprising only three movements. The feeling of No. 5 is far less heavy than No. 4, even if Inkinen seems to take delight in making connections to it, as though it were a continuation of the previous symphony, moving from darkness into light. The Andante is particularly delicate, and the finale, with its “swan” music, is quite sunny and attractive.

Would I give up Maazel (Decca), Davis (Philips or RCA), or Barbirolli (EMI) for this new issue by Inkinen? No, but I wouldn’t turn it down, either.

Recorded in 2008 (No. 5) and 2009 (No. 4) at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, the sound is big, warm, and resonant. There isn’t much depth to the orchestral stage or much punch or snap to the dynamics, yet in No. 4, especially, the sonics seem perfectly appropriate to the music. Besides, when the high percussive notes come in, they ring out all the more sweetly and persuasively through the softer sound field.

James Manheim, February 2011

The Naxos label forsakes its standard design for this disc of Sibelius symphonies from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen. Perhaps the image of aurora borealis over snowy mountains in darkness was inspired by the presence of the Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63, a piece of murk and utter gloom pierced only intermittently by brief rays of light. Here the work is paired with its polar opposite, the soaring Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82, an inspiring work that was virtually an anthem of Britain’s World War II effort (remarkable in view of the fact that Finland spent much of the war allied with Nazi Germany against its historic oppressors, the Russians). There are plenty of recordings of these works, even in this pairing, but Inkinen’s makes a strong choice at a budget price. His approach is straightforward and measured and very effective in the almost unbearably dark first movement of the Symphony No. 4, where he lets the music speak for its miserable self. The Symphony No. 5 has plenty for the orchestral horns to do, and the little-heralded New Zealand Symphony Orchestra stands up to Sibelius’ demands even if there are other versions where the strings glitter a bit more. Too, there are broader readings of the Symphony No. 5’s hurtling finale; here again Inkinen doesn’t push the music in any particular direction, and listeners may or may not prefer the result to other stand-up-and-cheer readings. But this is on balance top-level Sibelius at a budget price, with reasonable sound. Booklet notes, summarizing the circumstances and structure of each symphony, are in English only.

Brian Wilson - Download Roundup
MusicWeb International, February 2011

After some reservations about their recordings of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (8.572305), Pietari Inkinen and his New Zealand Orchestra made me wonder why the Fourth Symphony is not usually rated more highly, achieved mostly by underplaying the bleakness which often unduly pervades performances, yet they also convinced me that the Fifth remains the jewel in the crown. The mp3 sound does justice to the performances. Unlike most classicsonline downloads of recent Naxos material, there is no booklet. Nevertheless, this restores my belief that Naxos have the makings of another fine Sibelius cycle in hand.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2011

Having enjoyed universal acclaim for the first in this complete cycle of the Sibelius symphonies, Pietari Inkinen now moves to the brooding and often desolate landscapes of the Fourth. He negotiates his way through the long opening movement, avoiding the temptation to push forward, the bleakness tempered by some beautifully played woodwind solos. Having arrived on safe ground in the scherzo, he still refuses to raise the temperature of the music much higher than freezing point. You could well picture huge iceberg’s crashing unto one another in the third movement, and where most conductors allow the sun to break through the gloom in the final, Inkinen takes us back to wind-swept emptiness, the ending becoming increasingly sombre. It has proved a graveyard for so many recordings, Karajan’s 1950’s account with the Philharmonia never having been equalled. Now Inkinen stands high among the most searching and persuasive of recent recordings. The opening of the Fifth finds him still journeying through a bleak vista, the wind quietly whistling through the scene, and while the drama in the score is never underplayed, the timpani outburst that concludes the first movement becomes part of the general texture. A second movement of unusual clockwork tempi, the strings moving around in ghostly pirouettes seldom rising above mezzoforte. It is left to the swirling strings to announce the feel of tolling bells as the horns begin to dominate the texture in the finale. Here again Inkinen is different, the energising tempos avoiding both the overblown orchestral outbursts and a final peroration that can easily stagnate. I hope I have conveyed that these are far from run-of-the-mill interpretations, Inkinen having something new and interesting to stimulate us. The quality of orchestral playing carry all of this forward with conviction. Play the disc way above your usual volume setting.

David Hurwitz, January 2011

These are excellent performances of their type: extremely clear, flowing, with great attention paid to details of string phrasing and articulation (critical in this music). They come close to Paavo Berglund’s last cycle, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, though with a touch more atmosphere. The opening of the Fourth symphony typifies the approach: chords balanced so as to emphasize the grinding dissonances (as also in the “swan” theme for the horns in the Fifth’s finale), and remarkably audible textural layering. It gives the music a very modern feel, the romantic elements decidedly downplayed.

Of course, there is a price. Climaxes tend to be underwhelming. The big central crescendo in the finale of the Fourth fails to impress; neither does the climactic transition between the two halves of the Fifth symphony’s first movement. Still, Pietari Inkinen’s emphasis on lucidity gives the music a contrapuntal interest you might not have suspected that it had, and that compensates for the lack of sheer power. Such is the case in the Fourth’s tragic collapse, while the finale of the Fifth really does achieve maximum force only at the very end. Most importantly, the performances have flow—try the Fourth’s Tempo largo: very slow, but remarkably coherent and purposefully shaped.

The New Zealand Symphony plays very well throughout. The woodwinds distinguish themselves, and as previously mentioned, the string playing is impressively “Sibelian”. Even the endless tremolos have meaning and character. The sonics aren’t bad, but to the extent that the low end becomes a bit muddy and boomy in loud passages, it works against the interpretations. This seems to be a function of the venue. In sum, these are distinctive performances that Sibelians will surely enjoy hearing.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group