Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5

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This is the first in Pietari Inkinen’s new Sibelius cycle that I’ve heard, and as a lover of the composer I am thrilled to hear the music played with such freshness, assurance and beauty.

The set is a classic pairing, the darkest of all the works, Symphony No. 4, written when Sibelius feared he was dying of cancer, with his Fifth, full of resonant light and joy. The Fourth is also one of the most daring, searching examinations of the meaning and possibility of musical time. It is meant to seem not to move, even thought the orchestra plays a sequence of notes and sounds through time. Inkinen handles this in brilliant, unique fashion, balancing an absolutely static and resonant feel for the great rocking chords with a tempo for the melodic material, like the simple cello solo in the first movement, or the entirety of the finale, that is brisker than I have heard on record (Leon Botstein’s recent tough, fantastic live account is something altogether different). The result is a dynamic intensity that sheds none of the shadows that this music calls forth. There is satisfaction in the Fourth, but it must be earned first through despair (for Sibelians, the conductor uses orchestral bells in the last movement).

The Symphony No. 5 is a crowd-pleaser, maybe Sibelius’ most popular work, and the juxtaposition of these two on record can often be an easy sentimental indulgence. Inkinen’s manner is expansive and open, without indulging. The music is so humanely and plain-spokenly expressive, and so beautifully constructed, that the ideal performances are ones where the musicians serve the composer, not vice-versa, and this is an ideal peformance. Even though I am trying to personally reduce the number of physical CDs I have, I now need to add his previous releases in this series, and am eagerly looking forward to the next one, with the unusual Symphony No. 6 and the masterpiece, Symphony No. 7. Highly recommended, and a leading release for the year.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.