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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 (reconstructed by Timo Virtanen) [3:41]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Mäkelä
rec. 2021 at Konserthus, Oslo, Norway
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
DECCA 4852256 [4 CDs: 264:23]

When considering complete sets of the Sibelius symphonies, I always make straight for the sixth symphony. Two yardsticks I use to measure the success of any performance of any Sibelius symphony are attentiveness to the composer’s unique atmosphere and how well the conductor understands the symphonic logic of the piece. Without the former, a performance will remain earthbound and without the latter, it will lack impetus. Balancing these two elements is probably at its trickiest in the notoriously elusive sixth symphony.

There are lots of reasonable performances of this magical score but very few wholly successful let alone truly great ones. Beecham’s, to cite one famous example, drips with the hazy atmosphere of a Finnish summer but is too often becalmed by a serious lack of onward momentum to the point where the finale just rambles from one purple patch to another. I mention this recording because it came to mind as I listened to the sixth in this new set by Finnish wunderkind conductor Klaus Mäkelä. My word does he understand the strange otherworldly mood of this piece but like Beecham he does tend to get a little lost in the haunting landscapes when he should be pressing on. His finale, like that of his illustrious English predecessor, never really gets going as it should if it is going to tie up all the loose strands of the symphonic argument. For me, the most satisfying balancing of atmosphere and logic in this work remains the first recording by Schneevoigt. Having said all this, I remain a fan of the Beecham recording and likewise I found a lot to enjoy about this new recording. The orchestral playing is simply gorgeous but in an echt Sibelius way. Amongst a plethora of superlative woodwind playing, the flutes deserve to be singled out for bringing Sibelius’ haunting birdcalls so palpably to life. Amongst modern rivals, only the seemingly unlikely performance by the Australian Chamber Orchestra under Tognetti really gets close to Schneevoigt. Sadly this version only seems to be available as a Spotify exclusive. It is a terrific version with real passion and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation should really make it more widely available if they can. Failing that a full CD of Sibelius from the same forces would be even better.

After the sixth, I normally proceed either to the third or the seventh. This is a tremendous version of the seventh with the Oslo strings singing their hearts out in Sibelius’ long, almost hieratic melodies. Mäkelä and these musicians know how to balance the string sound so that it is intense but without becoming oversaturated. The Nordic light really does shine through these orchestral textures. Listen to their wild ecstasies in the piece’s final pages and you will realise this is an account to be reckoned with.

As with the sixth, this scores top marks for atmosphere but how does it rate in terms of symphonic rigour, probably more important in this diverse one movement structure than in any of the other symphonies? Extremely well. All the many changes are navigated with a real flair for Sibelius’ rhetoric and there is a deep sense of every section building continually toward the climax at the end where other accounts let things sag.

I should warn the reader that my inordinate fussiness over recordings of the Sibelius symphonies may well make me come across as a real curmudgeon. There are lots of good Sibelius sevens out there but the only one I consider truly great is by that most underrated of Sibelians, Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra. This new version has a similar sense of focus and excitement and makes most modern rivals seem a little bland. Certainly, Vänskä’s Minnesota seventh seems positively anaemic next to it. Right from the gripping opening bars, Mäkelä tells a much more compelling story. I much prefer Vänskä in Lahti to Vänskä in America in this symphony but Mäkelä is better still.

Turning from an underrated Sibelian to underrated Sibelius, how does Mäkelä get on with that key watershed work, the third? His opening movement is on the brisk side but is full of youthful vim and, in the return of the second subject, real guts. It is however, the last two movements that make or break a Sibelius 3. It is no surprise that the mysterious second movement shows Mäkelä at his best – those flutes again singing like lonely birds in the night! He also understands that the key to this music is how the rhythms are sprung. Colin Davis in Boston and Paavo Berglund in Bournemouth both understood this though neither really captured this movement’s essence quite so well in subsequent remakes. I might have liked a little more inwardness in the rapt cello passages in the middle of this movement but overall Mäkelä has the measure of this music. For me, only Davis in Boston really makes full sense of the strange hybrid finale. Too many performances, including the Berglund already mentioned, get fatally bogged down in the gear change between the two sections of this movement and never really recover, staggering over the line rather than arriving in sonic splendour. I liked the way Mäkelä linked the opening section of the finale to the crisp classicism of the work’s opening movement. He really digs into the music that leads to the transition between the section, suitably ratcheting up the tension, and resists the temptation to slow down when he hits the final section’s big tune. I liked that he resists putting on the brakes until the last moment though ultimately I would have liked a bit more ferocity and excitement.

Taking all this into account, this new version is definitely at the upper end without seriously threatening to unseat Davis and the Boston Symphony. As a side note, Davis’ LSO remake I found a real disappointment, remaining stubbornly earthbound.

I recently had the pleasure to encounter a live Cleveland taping of the fourth symphony by George Szell on Urania that sounded positively expressionist in its uncompromising force. At the other end of the scale, I thoroughly enjoyed every second of Mark Elder’s lyrical, arch romantic Hallé recording of the same work. Roughly speaking Mäkelä is somewhere between the two though I doubt I will ever come across a more uncompromising opening. This is a good moment to praise Decca’s superb sound. Listen to the resonance of the bass in these first few bars! His solo cello is very forthright where Szell’s sings out of the half light. This signals that this is a performance that goes for the jugular. Very different from Elder and Szell but equally compelling. The second movement scherzo I found curiously uninvolving especially next to the Strindbergian psychodrama that Szell conjures up. It pays in this music to leave something in the shadows. Elder’s more melodic approach, transforming the main theme into a kind of folk tune, pays dividends in terms of poignancy. Elder is particularly good at pulling the camera back to offer us huge landscapes rather than the neurotic insides of the psyche. Both Szell and Elder also display a lighter touch here. In the slow movement, Szell takes immense risks with a very loose, almost improvisatory approach before tightening things up for a devastating climax. Elder and Mäkelä keep a tighter rein on things. Elder again shows us a landscape rather than a psychological state and I found this less neurotic approach paradoxically even more overwhelming emotionally. Mäkelä is more straightforward though I did find that he was more interested in the intensity of the moment over the longer cumulative effect of the movement as a whole. The terrifying climax should grow more organically out of the music that precedes it however awesome the playing he gets from the Oslo musicians. More seriously, it rather robs the symphony as a whole of that essential momentum I mentioned earlier. But it would be a hard heart not to thrill to such fabulously committed playing so well recorded. It was nice to hear such a robust outing for the finale, a movement that often falls between the stools of romantic passion and existential alienation. The strings excel themselves at the bitter (extremely bitter!) end.

I am pleased that Mäkelä has included Tapiola in this set as I never feel that a view of Sibelius’ symphonic output makes sense without it. Yes, it isn’t a symphony but it is no ordinary symphonic poem either. Strangely, I wanted more of the unique, baleful atmosphere of this work in the opening pages. Kajanus in his pioneering recording takes us straight to the heart of the primeval savage forest but for me nobody matches Karajan in his first Berlin recording for its patient, hypnotic building of the mood of this piece though mention ought to be made of Beecham’s chronically underestimated account. Mäkelä gets a lot right but he just doesn’t terrify me in the way those three other versions mentioned do. In the second half of the work he is often very exciting but even here things fail to cohere into a properly symphonic argument for all the incidental detail. His storm, for example, is beautifully played but doesn’t shock or overwhelm as it should. Compared with the end of his recording of the seventh, the strings at the end of this Tapiola seem curiously lacking in fervour.

Moving on to the second symphony, I need to put my cards on the table and state that hearing Kajanus’ world premiere recording as a teenager has largely ruined all future recordings for me. The issue is, of course, his fast tempo for the opening movement. It transforms it from a pastoral idyll into a gutsy, punchy heroic piece of music. Next to it most slower performances seem soporific. Of conventional slower outings my current preference is a live recording by Horenstein with the French National Radio Orchestra in a Music and Arts box. It is a superbly gritty, almost cussed performance that I found immensely satisfying from first note to last. But even then, a few notes of Kajanus and I am hooked all over again! Mäkelä is much more conventional in approach.

The slow movement has proven treacherous for many big name conductors and not even Kajanus navigates it in a wholly convincing manner. The most sure footed of all with this movement’s angular rhetoric remains Colin Davis with the Boston Symphony. Mäkelä is typically red blooded. He really attacks those big rhetorical gestures like he means and understands them. I can imagine that he is a very exciting conductor to hear live. What sets Colin Davis apart is that, whilst he offers no quarter in terms of boldness, he finds a single pulse to thread all of the different sections of the movement together. But rather than dwell on shortcomings, let’s pay attention to the glorious big finish Mäkelä gives to the movement. The strings here are sumptuous, the brass resplendent.

If the first two movements represent the interpretative equivalent of a succession of bear traps then most conductors get the last two right. Mäkelä is no exception. He is bright as a button in the scherzo and gently yearning in the trio. The finale is suitably grand with the big tune delivered in swashbuckling style.

Mäkelä’s first symphony didn’t entirely win me over. Particularly in the opening movement I wanted more Errol Flynn style sweep. You can tell a lot about a performance of this symphony by the way the last bars of the first movement are delivered. In the best recordings – step forward yet again Robert Kajanus and take a bow – it should sound like an almost cataclysmic dismissal. Wotan contemptuously dispatching Hunding at the end of Act 2 of Die Walküre. Sadly, as so often with this movement on record, Mäkelä sounds a little apologetic. Try Barbirolli with the Hallé and you’ll see what I mean. What Mäkelä is good at is detail – the second subject of the same opening movement is delectable. But a performance of this symphony lives or dies on whether the conductor can construct a meaningful narrative out of its diverse elements. Mäkelä didn’t quite convince me that they did all fit together. The finale felt episodic. But what episodes! Listen to the way the big string tune is drawn out round about the nine minute mark. It is unfortunately rather typical of this performance that Mäkelä doesn’t push on from there to an even bigger conclusion. The final bars are a bit of damp squib.

Which leaves the fifth symphony, a performance which in many ways reflects the strengths and weaknesses of this set. This is very much a bright and breezy view of the work. It teems with detail and the overall mood is vigorous and vernal rather than heavyweight. I found this rather refreshing if ultimately I find Karajan’s more monumental approach gets deeper into the primal struggles of the work. No one matches Karajan for the visceral thrill of the end of the first movement though there is plenty of excitement to be had from the young Finn’s impetuous approach.

By way of a pendant to the main set, Mäkelä offers a tantalising bonus in the form of Timo Vertanen’s working up of three short fragments intended for the mythical lost/never completed/barely started (take your pick) eighth symphony. Nobody is going to pretend these fragments aren’t disappointing but equally no Sibelius lover is going to want to go without hearing them. Sadly, this offers no revelation akin to Mahler 10 or the completed finale of Bruckner 9 but there is just about enough to provoke some serious regret. I personally don’t think Sibelius went much further with the work than this but hearing these short passages even I can’t help dreaming of a score miraculously turning up somewhere some day.

A mean spirited view of this set would be that only one of the performances, that of the seventh, seriously rivals the best of the past. I would prefer to see it as an exciting debut from a prospect who more than justifies Decca’s faith in him. Taken as a whole this is one of the best new sets of the Sibelius symphonies I have heard since Vänskä’s BIS box (the earlier Lahti set rather than the frankly a little dull Minnesota remake) – no mean praise and evidence that we are dealing with a true Sibelian. I would want to banish the idea that there is anything premature or half formed about these interpretations. These are serious, well thought through accounts, not to be seen as ‘good considering’. The orchestral playing alone is enough to show he is already a master of his art.

David McDade

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