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Sibelius Sets Nordic History

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Sibelius, Scènes historiques / King Christian Suite, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, P. Inkinen

(released January 29, 2008)
Naxos 8.570068
It has been a Sibelius week around here, for reasons that will become obvious soon enough. One of the discs that made it back into my player was this recent release of some of the Finnish composer's incidental music. It is my first encounter with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, which has just appointed a young Finnish conductor, Pietari Inkinen, to succeed James Judd as its Music Director. This recording was made a few months after Inkinen's first guest appearance with the NZSO, in 2006, about one year after he received his conducting degree. Inkinen's youth is being handled as a selling point by the organization, which cites his "past history of playing in rock groups (and soccer teams)" in its promotional materials. Whatever. The only thing that really matters is how the orchestra sounds with him on the podium, and they sound pretty good.

The first suite known as Scènes historiques (op. 25, 1899) originated in music composed for a pageant in celebration of the Press Pension Fund, charged with Finnish nationalist overtones during a time of Russian imperial domination curtailing, among other things, freedom of the press. (The famous Finlandia also was composed for that event, but it was published separately.) The All'Overtura opening movement is echt-Sibelius, with slow-blooming brass swells, skirling winds, and the dull, volcanic rumble of percussion evoking scenes of pagan Finland. Other colors follow in the second and third movements, the depressing bassoon duet in the second movement, set during the Thirty Years War, and the almost singular castanets (!) of the Bolero third movement (depicting festivities at the court of the Swedish governor).

Around the same time as the first of these suites, Sibelius composed incidental music for the play Kuningas Kristian II, by his friend Adolf Paul, about the Renaissance king of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The wind soloists, who so often have to play in pairs in Sibelius, all sound strong, as does the harpist, who gets more than one coloristic outing in this program. So much of what is remembered about Sibelius's music is the grand symphonic gestures, but there is also extravagantly tender music, like the Love Song in the middle of the follow-up suite of Scènes historiques (op. 66, 1912) and the hushed Elégie for the murdered girl loved by King Christian. None of these works are exactly rare on disc already, but this recording is the latest featured in a growing and generally good Sibelius discography from Naxos, at their usual reduced prices, with various Finnish musicians.

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