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Sibelius sys 4852256
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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No.1 in E minor Op. 39 [39:54]
Symphony No.2 in D major Op. 43 [46:03]
Symphony No.3 in C major Op. 52 [30:03]
Symphony No.4 in A minor Op. 63 [37:52]
Symphony No.5 in E flat major Op. 82 [34:02]
Symphony No.6 in D minor Op. 104 [30:43]
Symphony No.7 in C major Op. 105 [22:42]
Tapiola Op. 112 [19:23]
Three Late Fragments [3:41]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Mäkelä
rec. 4 February - 1 June 2021, Konserthus, Oslo, Norway
DECCA 485 2256 [4 CDs: 265:13]

The pandemic circumstances of 2021 enforced a four-month recording period. A plan to record the symphonies live had to be revised when concert life was suspended. Instead, says Mäkelä in the booklet, “We played, played, played and then recorded”. Even the 1.5-metre distancing requirement then prevailing in Norway was an advantage, “fostering deep listening in the musicians”. Mäkelä is just 26, only the third conductor ever signed exclusively to Decca, and this cycle is his debut on disc. It has already received laudatory reviews in several quarters.

The First Symphony opens with precise playing in terms of the dynamic markings for the introductory clarinet solo, and a fierce string tremolo launches the Allegro energico main theme. The often ignored metronome marking of dotted minim = 108 suggests more urgency than we get here. At 11:50, the total time contrasts with those of Osmo Vänskä, a stickler for such things: 9:42 in Lahti and 9:36 in Minnesota. I have selected him for comparison for the calibre of his cycle, but also on the basis of a conversation on “Performing Sibelius” (in Chapter 15 of The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius, ed. Daniel Grimley). Vänskä calls the symphony “young man’s music […] he wanted it to be wild as well. People have told me once they have heard this faster version they cannot listen to it any slower.”

That faster speed, rare still, can also be found on the long-admired Anthony Collins version of 1952, which runs for a brisk 9:21. Mäkelä’s traditional timing is shared by the great performers of Sibelius’s No. 1, Bernstein (DGG, 11:56) and Barbirolli (EMI, 12:07). Like them, Mäkelä’s intensity and power of the playing makes the breadth of tempo work. Some slowness afflicts the second movement, too, anticipating by several bars the allargando (getting broader) marking on its last page. But the finale goes superbly, with a true cantabile ed espressivo treatment of the big tune at the andante assai section, the Oslo strings sumptuous in tone. Mäkelä may simply see this work as essentially a late-romantic piece, so plays it that way.

The Second Symphony is also given a traditional interpretation, with a stirring early first movement climax at the Poco largamente, if one a bit louder than the poco f marking implies. The traditional tempi give a typical 10:14 timing versus the 9:10 and 9:14 of Collins and Vänskä respectively. Here, though, there is no metronome mark to help interpret the score’s “Allegretto”. The slow movement’s marking of Andante ma rubato also gives licence to differing views. Mäkelä makes the most of each moment in this unusually incident-filled movement, and draws a good response from each orchestral section, especially the lower strings and upper woodwinds in their various exchanges.

The Vivacissimo third movement flies through its opening string flurries, and the pastoral oboe’s trio tune launched with nine repeated notes is properly lento e suave. Mäkelä makes sure we do not miss the horns’ anticipation of the finale’s big theme. It duly arrives with romantic ardour as the finale begins, the apotheosis of what Stravinsky dubbed Sibelius’s “Italian lyricism gone north” which we hear especially in the first two symphonies. Mäkelä ignores the “a tempo” a few bars after fig. D. He prefers, as elsewhere, to underline the feeling, but gradually picks up the tempo and strides on to a very sonorous coda, in which the pealing of the trumpets might have emerged more from the brassy hymn perhaps. Again he is at the traditional slow end for this movement at 14:30. Barbirolli takes 14:22, and even Vänskä in Lahti – No. 2 is not perhaps the best of his cycle – needs 14:50 compared with Collins’s 12:53.

The Third Symphony receives a very central interpretation in terms of timings, which are fairly close to Vänskä’s in each movement; Collins again is much tauter throughout. The widest variation comes in the middle movement: Collins a very swift 7:25, Mäkelä 10:42, Vänskä 11:12. That, however, can be expected when the composer’s notorious marking is “Andantino can moto, quasi allegretto” which could translate as “Something of a walking pace, but with movement, and almost a little lively”. But it can work at most tempi, and Mäkelä’s lyrical phrasing and alert rhythm make his tempo choice very effective. The outer movements, especially the finale, are no less persuasive. Above all, there is no sense of this work being some sort of lighter divertissement within the cycle. It is as tightly structured and powerfully goal-directed as the others.

The Fourth Symphony opens with the growling low muted strings (cellos and basses) and bassoon noise – as fierce as can be made by that scoring, the ubiquitous tritone included, until settling into its swaying accompaniment to the cello solo. That instrument here impersonates a halting runic chant with a lamentation of weary foreboding, foreseeing the depths this great symphony must yet plumb. Mäkelä is at his most insightful and evocative here. A pity the stopped horn phrase is too soft and distant-sounding on both its appearances (a not uncommon problem). But the effect is caught in the second movement and the finale, the buzz of stopped horns clearly a key colour in this work’s subdued palette. The Largo’s bleak dark heart is mercilessly explored in what can be a long slow movement. Stokowski’s pioneering 1932 version is the swiftest at 8:29, while Vänskä takes 14:04! Mäkelä’s middle-course 11:40 feels about right. He manages the two waves of the climax well, with weighty trombones blazing out for the second of them. The finale has little truck with the glockenspiel’s attempts at frivolity as it makes its way to its cheerless ending. No morendo or ritenuto marking here, just a stark expiry. Vänskä says of this: “I would like to say to young conductors: ‘trust what he wrote’.” Mäkelä makes a slight rit., but it comes at the end of a fine and fearless Fourth, and hardly invalidates the previous thirty-five minutes.

In the Fifth Symphony we have, along with the Second, the work which most orchestral players will know best and in several cases will have played it many more times than Klaus Mäkelä. In interview he acknowledges that: “Good orchestras just play. All you can do is guide them a little bit […] what will make sense for everyone […] what will have the most impact?” His philosophy works well on this evidence. The Oslo band’s winds and horns that provide much of the tinta of the work’s opening pages sound alluring, as do the strings when eventually called upon a little further in. The big sunrise moment is pulled off well, though is not as dazzling as some classic accounts, perhaps a matter of trumpet balance once more. The presto coda is stirring, if not quite hell-for-leather. The lyricism of the second movement is very winning in these hands, and the Oslo horns nobly intone the finale’s swan motif. After those six isolated final chords are hammered home, you feel this is how this great journey should be conducted, even though other favourite accounts will not be eclipsed.

The Sixth Symphony has a famously lyrical opening, a passage of luminous string counterpoint (violins divisi and violas only for twenty-seven bars), rapturously played here. This is the “pure water” Sibelius said he offered the public while other artists proffered spiced cocktails. Remarkably, the Oslo string players somehow make this sound like chamber music (remember that each player was 1.5 metres from any colleague) and the conductor interprets that Allegro molto moderato marking as implying a steady tempo. Indeed he is unafraid of such tempi for the persistent rhythmic motifs jogging along in subsequent movements, knowing that impatience can be ruinous. His timing of 31:27 compares to 26:45 from Vänskä, and he makes a slight unmarked ritenuto ending to the finale, when Vänskä insists a blunt one is required. But overall this is a convincing Sixth, which (along with the Third) is perhaps the most elusive of the seven to interpret and make completely persuasive. Some commentators still refer way back to Beecham (1950) or Karajan (1955), both of whose readings the composer admired, almost as if there has been no subsequent establishment of a modern performing tradition of the Sixth. Perhaps Mäkelä will champion the work in concert and change that.

The Seventh Symphony begins with magisterial slowness and strength. The strings ascend their C major scale as if the work itself is struggling to be born. Mäkelä’s deliberate pace suggests those cosmological analogies often invoked to characterise No. 7, as when Robert Simpson writes of “a great planet in orbit, its movement vast, inexorable”. One senses the great concentration needed from the players to sustain such a tempo and yet to imply motion. The passage leading up to the first trombone entry manages this superbly. The trombone theme itself emerges as if we have reached a peak and a vast panorama is now in view. The swifter sections too are natural in their emergence from seeming stasis, that skill in transition fundamental to the Sibelius conductor’s art. Mäkelä is excellent at Sibelius’s gradualism; poco a poco – “little by little” – is a favourite marking. Mäkelä and Vänskä, both very fine in this piece, share the timing at 22:42 and 22:44 respectively.

Tapiola has many of the same qualities as the Seventh Symphony, for it was written around the same time, and Mäkelä gives a similarly imposing performance. His 19:23 timing contrasts with Vänskä’s 17:22. The Three Late Fragments, which might have been parts of the Eighth Symphony the composer destroyed, were found amongst his papers. They are very short, both typical and yet different from other musical material on these discs, an intriguing little extra, no more.

This cycle is an impressive achievement, with no need for any allowance for the conductor’s youth and relative inexperience. Its qualities are concentration, dedication and a sense that he knows how he wants this music to go, whatever the predecessors have done. It will make a fine additional cycle for Sibelius collectors. Such reservations as I have concern some slow tempi and ignored (or imagined) markings, but at no point does anything sound unidiomatic or get becalmed. Time will tell if the hyperbole already surrounding Klaus Mäkelä’s gifts is justified, and if this cycle proves a new benchmark. The evidence on these discs is certainly encouraging.

That the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra is a very good one is hardly news to collectors, not least since we have the evidence of the fine Sibelius symphonies (Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5) they recorded with Mariss Jansons, their Music Director in 1979-2002. The recording too is very good, imposing when it needs to be, but capturing some very tactile super-soft atmospheric playing at times. The booklet note is interesting, if brief. The symphonies are organised chronologically. Two complete symphonies sit on each of the first three discs, and the twin masterpieces of the last symphony and Tapiola appropriately share the fourth.

There are very many rival recordings, including distinguished conductors who recorded the cycle twice or thrice: Colin Davis, Paavo Berglund, Neeme Järvi, Lorin Maazel and Osmo Vänskä. For this review I have referenced the latter because Vänskä’s well-recorded Lahti cycle on BIS is consistently good, adds a superb Tapiola, and uniquely includes both versions of the Fifth Symphony.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: David McDade

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