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.

Icelandic Sibelius – Symphonies 1 & 3 (Naxos)

Symphony No.1 in E minor, op.39 (Inktroduction)
Symphony No.3 in C major, op.52

Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Petri Sakari

NAXOS 8.554102
[67:35] budget-price

From the volcanic land of Björk Naxos has launched its new (the second after Adrian Leaper’s, also good) cycle of Sibelius Symphonies. For a company not well-known for repeat recordings of the same music, I can only say this bodes well for the composer – and what a smashing start this is!

Led by their new and able Finnish director Petri Sakari, the Iceland Symphony (who have previously recorded some Sibelius for Chandos) provide very tightly etched and sharply responsive account of the music, combining precision which never becomes rigid, with strength of conviction and energy. The result is readings which feel confident and highly charged but never over-indulges, as heard in the first and third movements of the Romantically-inclined Symphony No.1.
Continue reading Icelandic Sibelius – Symphonies 1 & 3 (Naxos)

Icelandic Sibelius – Symphony No.2 & Tempest Suite No.1 (Naxos)

Symphony No.2 in D major, op.43
The Tempest: Suite No.1, op.109/2

Iceland Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Petri Sakari

NAXOS 8.554266 (Details)
[68:08] budget-price

An original Inkpot review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

What I like about this reading of the Second Symphony is its tightly driven energy, the no-nonsense blazing brass of the first movement, coupled with confidence and power. Sakari has an admirable measure of the surge and the ebb, the flow and the outburst of the symphony. The Andante has no lack of atmosphere; the opening pizzicato “walk” is not as mysterious as some other accounts, but makes up for it with the aforementioned sense of confidence, and attention to detail without being too deliberate. I enjoyed the slow unveiling of the woodwind episodes after the brassy tumult, the chilly rock-hewned power of the Icelandic brass (what gorgeous trumpets – and listen for their diminuendi), and the solemn-heroic build towards the end.

The pacing of the Vivacissimo is excellent, neither too fast or slow. At 6:17 it is on the long side, but I enjoyed the slick drama that the Icelanders churn from the score. Even more impressive is the bridging to the finale – very well done indeed, without a wisp of too much hesitation or too little breathtaking anticipation, the Icelanders slip into the rising theme with calm nobility. The trombones pulsate nicely, the woodwind pedals are leveled just right in the background, while the trumpets thrust their fanfare with flawless magnificence in both their big appearances. The horns deserve mention too for making good their support.

The swirling storm that leads to the final coda is not exactly the most powerful, most stormy one I’ve heard. Though I am impressed by the work put in by the woodwinds at the top of the score, the overall picture is slightly wanting in that final ounce of relentlessness, of that feeling of heroic defiance that gives this work such a patriotic ring. Nevertheless, this is not a bad reading at all. In fact, the coda itself is satisfyingly majestic, with brass rising even higher and louder than before, blazing above each other in triumph. The full D major glory of the final chords are savoured with great relish.

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The coupling of the First Suite from The Tempest is a little odd and unusual, the work coming from the end of Sibelius’ known orchestral output, whereas the symphony is among his first. It makes a great contrast, especially the magical aura of The Oak Tree (and Ariel’s Song), to which the chilly sounds of the Icelanders do good justice to, if not as sorcerous as Segerstam’s account on Ondine.

The Humoresque is ably done, though I’ve heard more liquid playing from other clarinettists. The orchestra sings Caliban’s Song with ample colour and drama, loudmouthed and lurid (It’s quite hard to get this piece wrong, so far in my listening experience); and is then repeated gruesomely in the middle of the Scène. I greatly enjoyed the pulse and flow of this performance of The Harvesters. The little details are really nice – the quiet snare drum, the field of floating strings, the harp, flute – all add up to a very picturesque tone painting.

Strangely, in The Storm, the recording (or is it the conductor?) gives great prominence to the brass, somewhat downplaying the turbulence of the strings. At other times, the lower brass (as in that rising series of chords) is drowned. In all, a committed performance, but sonically the result is too blocky, too opaque. The Naxos sound isn’t really very transparent, which may be at fault.

My recent “live” encounter with some of this music has made me realise the extent that contrast plays a part in The Tempest. One particular example is the Intrada-Berceuse. Here, I think Sakari doesn’t quite put in enough thrust into the shattering blows of the Intrada, though it is not ineffective. The gentle Berceuse itself receives a fine interpretation, with strings sounding timid and restrained, almost emasculated.

Overall, excellent performances of the symphony and most of the Suite and a worthy successor to the previous release of Symphonies Nos.1 and 3 (reviewed here). If you need a recording of No.2, you can safely invest in this, which comes with the bonus of The Tempest (if incomplete). But if the latter interests you more than the former, go for the Ondine/Segerstam and the complete theatre score recorded on BIS (detailed here).