Review: Finnish flourish in prophetic recording

By William Dart

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Come April, Pietari Inkinen will be in town with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra giving us a taste of the contemporary Finnish composer Rautavaara. In the meantime, Naxos presents the conductor and orchestra in a new recording of Sibelius at his picturesque best.

Echoes of older composers, from across Russian and Norwegian borders, abound in these early works. Not that one doesn't thrill to a touch of Tchaikovskian bombast in the Scenes historiques or sigh when Sibelius channels Grieg in the King Christian II Suite. Nevertheless, the Finnish composer's signature is already here in the primal brass writing and massive orchestral build-ups that occasionally seem to be propelling themselves towards an outburst from the familiar Karelia Suite.

This is hardly major Sibelius, with little indication that this man would be, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, "the head of the great symphonic dynasty"; yet there are premonitions of later directions, particularly in the rough-hewn structures and broad brush-strokes.

Such is the involvement of Inkinen and the NZSO that you might think Shaw's prediction had already come to be. Caught in a sumptuous recording, produced and engineered by Tim Handley in Wellington's Town Hall, this is music that exerts a very special appeal.

With Easter a week away, a time of reflection for many, a recent recording of Grieg's choral music performed by the Norwegian Soloists' Choir, is well worth searching out. From the first track, the 29 singers spin a sonic web of exemplary purity; the women's voices float airborne through conductor Grete Pedersen's arrangement of the popular Last Spring while the men are stirringly sturdy and staunch in Land-Sighting, with full and confident solos pouring forth over the village-church tones of the harmonium.

The best is saved for last with the four Psalm settings of Opus 74. These are Grieg's final compositions, scores in which devotion, serenity and passion create their own Holy Trinity. When radiance shines out in the first Psalm, best believe it - if you have doubts, the Norwegian singers and the magnificent BIS recording will restore your faith.

* Sibelius: Scenes Historiques (Naxos 8.570068)
* Grieg: Choir Music (BIS SACD 1661, through Elite Music)

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