Icelandic Sibelius – Symphonies 4 & 5 (Naxos)

Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63
Symphony No.5 in E flat major, op.82

Iceland Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Petri Sakari

NAXOS 8.554377 (Details)
[69:19] budget-price

An original Inkpot review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

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This is the fourth disc of Sibelius from Petri Sakari and the Iceland Symphony, on Naxos. This Nordic team has so far shown a penchant for daring playing, confident sweep and cutting, finely etched music-making. The results have been exemplary, though not perfect. Sometimes, the “go for it!” helter-skelter style does not pause enough to smell the roses, but at other times, the same high energy treatment produces startlingly impressive results. There are, for example, many passages of great beauty to be found in these recordings, including here, and also many admirable and lively bursts of energetic playing.

Sibelius as painted around 1911
Sibelius as painted around 1911, in between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies

In the Fourth Symphony here, we get to a good start, with a long, brooding introduction of the well-known tritonic theme. Sakari and the Icelanders can be quite the experts in sustaining long musical arguments – here in the Fourth (and later in the first movement of the Fifth) they do so. The solo cello has a rather bright tone, which is an uncommon occurrence with performances of this work. It is very evocative, like the last shafts of sunlight at twilight. The first movement is given a cool and concentrated performance, with the sense of unity well-sustained. On a more abstract level, my impression is that this performance has more “light” than “dark” – it isn’t quite as solemn as some other interpretations.

Sakari handles shifts of moods in the Allegro molto vivace with good sense, which also makes his transition between the second and third movements seamless. Subtlety to detail and underlying drama ensures also that the ending of this Allegro is as abrupt as it is enigmatic. Osmo Vänskä’s account on BIS is however even more fluid in feeling, much more fine – rather like a sheet of ice next to the Icelander’s jagged landscape.

This fabulously icy sound of the Icelanders is employed to great effect, and as before, the brass of this orchestra is superb (try ending of first movement of No.5). Overall, Sakari’s hand over pacing and tempo changes is very sensitive and unfussy. His direction is clean, interpretations satisfying. Although sometimes the playing sounds a bit detached, there is drama, anxiety, light and darkness, hope and ominosity – all that the Fourth expresses.

I greatly enjoyed the magnificent performance of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony – it has great flow, excellent stringwork – the detailed, unfussy ostinato also heard in the Fourth, ample orchestral body and visionary splendour displayed in the original second movement.

The slow movement is played with ample detail, but sounds just a little bit detached. The phrasing is just a little bit too rigid, lacking a sort of “lyric curvaceousness”. The interpretation does not “smile” enough… it is just somewhat too serious. In fact, come to think of it, it might be fair enough to say that the movement is too much like the way the Fourth is played. Technically though, this is not a bad reading – there are many details to be heard.

What is not satisfactory is the finale – it is quite literally unimpressive. The introduction sounds tired, compared to other versions, and though the pacing of the horns in the “Swan Hymn” is good, they sound just a tad weary. The difficult punctuating phrase from the double-basses sound very ugly here (granted, this isn’t the only performance where this is a flaw). Sakari plays down and does not exploit the majestic modulation into C major in the famous climax of the “Swan Hymn” – there is neither the profuse surging energy of Vänskä’s reading, the Olympian splendour of Segerstam’s Chandos recording or the noble grace of Berglund on Royal Classics. When the passage is over, one does not feel as if the modulation has taken place at all. When one compares this to more joyous, magnificent interpretations – it is difficult to recommend this Fifth, if only because the “Swan Hymn” is such a crucial point with collectors of this symphony. Thankfully, the conclusion is magnificent, bringing back the atmosphere and orchestral power that this team displayed in the first movement. The final five hammer blows are very nicely spaced out.

In conclusion – it is a little unfortunate that of the seven movements on this disc, the most popular one is the least satisfactorily performed. As I have suggested, if you are specifically looking for a good version of the Fifth (in particular of the finale), I do not recommend this. But I like this Fourth – the icy, and somehow uniquely “light” approach and evocative performance is very interesting. Add to this the powerful delivery of various parts of the Fifth, this disc remains recommendable.

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Leon

Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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