A Fresh Look at Sibelius

by Julie Amacher
June 14, 2011

Listen New Classical Tracks: A Fresh Look at Sibelius
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Sibelius: Symphony No 2, Karelia Suite / Inkinen, New Zealand Symphony (Album Art)

For a small country, Finland has produced an inordinate number of conductors with international careers: Salonen, Vanska, Saraste, and now Pietari Inkinen. His latest disc is part of his ongoing Sibelius cycle, and features the sweeping Symphony No. 2.

Sibelius - Symphony No. 2, Karelia Suite - Pietari Inkinen/New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.572704).

Recently, my college-aged son took his roommates to Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis to hear Osmo Vanska conduct the Minnesota Orchestra in Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 2. He was totally jazzed about what he heard and was looking for a recording of that symphony. In my stack of new releases I just happened to have one featuring that famous work with a young Finnish conductor, Pietari Inkinen leading the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. This is the third volume in their new series featuring all of the symphonies by Finland's number-one son.

Pietari Inkinen was four years old when he began playing violin. At age 14 he got his first shot at conducting and was hooked. He was just 28 years old when he took the helm of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in 2008. Inkinen is also Principal Guest Conductor of the Japan Philharmonic in Tokyo and he still plays violin with the Inkinen Trio. As an instrumentalist Inkinen creates an inviting, collaborative atmosphere with his musicians, giving them the freedom they need to fully express the music. The end result is a delightful sense of spontaneity and excitement throughout this recording. The first movement pulsates at an easy-going, flexible pace. The strings always start just after the beat, whereas the melody in the wind section starts squarely on the beat. The silent downbeats become a distinctive feature for this opening movement.

Sibelius and his family were sent to Italy on sabbatical by a wealthy Baron who was a fan of the composer's music. During his time in Italy Sibelius was able to compose to his heart's content and immediately his second symphony began to form in his mind. "I am completely a man of imagination," Sibelius wrote. He worked on his second symphony while absorbing the gorgeous horizon along the blue, sunny Mediterranean. He completed the symphony shortly after returning to Finland in March of 1902, and immediately premiered this fresh-sounding masterpiece, which effectively expressed the misty northern landscape of his homeland. A timpani roll sets the scene for the second movement, and we hear its rumble each time the bassoon melody returns. This second movement has a mysterious tone as the harsh winds whirl throughout this movement. The anticipation builds as Inkinen and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra soar to the luscious transition that seamlessly unites the third movement and the heroic finale. You can almost picture a hero and heroine triumphantly falling into one another's arms while the sun sets behind them during the sweeping romantic melody in the finale.

After the fully-satisfying Second Symphony Pietari Inkinen and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra serve up one final tantalizing morsel, the Karelia Suite. These three movements were part of a theatrical production about Finnish history and legends produced at Helsinki University in 1893. While I like the bright, crisp quality of the orchestra's sound, the tempo throughout this suite is a bit mechanical.

Many great conductors have already recorded full cycles of Sibelius's seven symphonies and it appears Pietari Inkinen and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra will find a place among them. Pietari Inkinen is ensuring that Finland's next generation of conductors carry on the legacy of their country's best-loved composer. With his orchestra he shapes deep, rich colors and textures forming a savory romantic sound. And, my son will be happy to hear that his favorite Finnish conductor, Osmo Vanska will also be recording another Sibelius Symphony cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra later this year.