Finland had been looking for the successor to Jean Sibelius, the country's great nationalist composer of heroic symphonies, for decades before Joonas Kokkonen arrived with his first two symphonies in 1960 and 1961. Neither on the surface sounds very much like Sibelius. Their harmonic language is atonal, their style postwar Modernism, and their color palette fundamentally gray with occasional flashes of red and purple. But there are enough hints of Sibelius in each -- clean lines, lean textures, and, occasionally, woodwinds in thirds -- to make the continuity between the two composers manifest.
Unfortunately, as this 2009 recording with Sakari Oramo directing the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra shows, Kokkonen is not in Sibelius' league. Despite these well-played, well-conducted, and dedicated performances, Kokkonen comes off as a standard-issue post-Modernist with a slight Finnish accent. His temperatures range from cold to very cold, his tone from harsh to harsher, and his attitude from grim to gloomy. Kokkonen clearly knows what he's about, but that doesn't make his music any more appealing, only more imposing. Avid fans of postwar Finnish modernism may find this disc interesting. Others may not. Ondine's digital sound is a bit close and a tad two-dimensional, but still very clear.