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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No.1 in E minor Op. 39
Symphony No.2 in D major Op. 43
Symphony No.3 in C major Op. 52
Symphony No.4 in A minor Op. 63
Symphony No.5 in E flat major Op. 82
Symphony No.6 in D minor Op. 104
Symphony No.7 in C major Op. 105
Tapiola Op. 112
Three Late Fragments (reconstructed by Timo Virtanen)
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Mäkelä
rec. 2021, Konserthus, Oslo, Norway
DECCA 4852256 [4 CDs: 264]

Born as recently as 1996, Klaus Mäkelä has become a conducting hot property in just a few years. He was appointed Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, starting with the 2020/21 season. Not long afterwards, he was named as Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris, starting with the 2022/23 season. A few months ago, the latest development in his career was announced. From August 2022 he is to become ‘artistic partner’ of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and in August 2027 he will become the orchestra’s Chief Conductor. For now at least he intends to carry on with his posts in Oslo and Paris. In the summer of 2022 he and the Oslo Phil made quite an impression at the BBC Proms in London (review).

They brought some Sibelius to the Proms in the shape of Tapiola; that’s unsurprising because in the early days of their partnership they worked intensively on the music of the Finnish master. Indeed, we learn from Decca’s booklet note that Mäkelä’s first Oslo season (2020/21) had been planned as a nine-month exploration of the Sibelius symphonies. Covid restrictions compromised those plans but, even so, Mäkelä and the orchestra were able to spend the early months of 2021 immersed in the symphonies. These recordings, set down between February and June 2021, were the result. On these CDs the symphonies are presented chronologically, though they were not recorded in that order.

The reading of the First Symphony (which was one of the last pieces to be recorded) disconcerted me at times. The first movement, Allegro energico, is very dramatic and powerful. The performance is vivid and I was struck by the way that the timpanist is encouraged to play out – actually, I think the timpani are overdone at times; for example, around 4:50 and again at about 10:50. Mäkelä makes the most of the dynamic contrasts in the music. I found the results exciting and involving but perhaps a bit over-played at times. The slow movement is less controversial; it’s superbly played and the performance nicely mixes finesse and ardour. The Scherzo is full of blazing energy, the Trio carefully shaped. The introduction to the finale is taken very broadly – though not excessively so. When the tempo picks up, the music is very urgent; this is edge-of-the-seat stuff. The big, generous tune is satisfyingly expansive at its first appearance (3:29) and when the melody recurs towards the end of the movement (9:00) it’s ardent and majestic. This is a performance of the symphony that makes you sit up and take notice, but parts of the outer movements are rather provocative.

In the Second Symphony, which was the first to be recorded, Mäkelä does not court controversy in the same way. The interpretation of the first movement is not as startling as I found the opening movement of the First to be at times. I love the way that every strand of Sibelius’s texture comes out. After a mysterious opening, Mäkelä leads the orchestra in a powerful and passionate account of the slow movement. The Scherzo is high-energy and the transition to the finale is full of pent-up emotion, which is satisfyingly released at the beginning of the finale. I enjoyed the reading of this last movement very much; it’s exciting and very involving. The build-up to the symphony’s end is very well handled though, arguably, the closing pages (from 12:44) are a bit too expansive; that said, the final peroration is undeniably grand. This is a considerable account of the Second.

I sometimes think the Third Symphony is a bit underrated. It shouldn’t be; it’s very skilfully composed and acts as an essential stylistic bridge between the first two symphonies and those which were to follow. Mäkelä’s approach to the first movement is brisk and full of purpose. Momentum is all, though he doesn’t neglect to relax the pace for the more expressive little passages. I confess that I have often thought the second movement to be one of Sibelius’s less interesting compositions but Mäkelä makes me reconsider that view; his reading is characterful. In the finale, once the Moderato introduction has given way to the Allegro (ma non tanto) the performance is very strongly profiled. Every accent and other detail is made to count for something and the results are exciting. All in all, this is a really convincing performance of the Cinderella among Sibelius symphonies. (It is, I believe, the only one of the seven that Herbert von Karajan, a noted Sibelian, never conducted.)

The Third may be underrated but no such qualification applies in the case of the gaunt masterpiece that is the Fourth Symphony. Mäkelä’s way with the first movement is full of tension. Here, everything is sharply etched. As I’ve listened to this reading, I’ve wondered if some people might think the tension overdone but I found the performance gripping. The short second movement is characterised by frosty lightness. The third movement, Il tempo largo, is the brooding dark heart of the work. Here we experience anticipations of Tapiola. Once again, Mäkelä ensures that all the details in the score are observed. The movement glowers like a forbidding snowy peak. This is compelling music and I feel that this conductor has the measure of it. After the intensity of the third movement the finale can seem an anti-climax: not here. Mäkelä invests the music with life and, indeed, drama until he reaches the enigmatic close. This is a compelling version of the Fourth.

I like the spacious opening to Mäkelä’s account of the Fifth Symphony. The conductor guides the first movement with a sure hand, making the various speed transitions seem natural and inevitable, just as Sibelius intended. In particular, the acceleration towards the Presto is very smoothly navigated and the Presto conclusion blazes, as it should. The slow movement is a well-controlled interlude before the drama of the finale. Here, the opening is driven and exciting. Then the Un pochettino largamente is ideally paced. The performance of this movement is very convincing, with the final pages particularly impressive.

The Sixth Symphony is an elusive work and perhaps undervalued by some. Mäkelä brings impressive cohesion to the first movement and then achieves excellent clarity and balance of textures in the second movement. In the nimble Poco vivace movement, I admired the dexterity and lightness of touch from the Oslo players, the woodwinds especially. Mäkelä leads a poised account of the introduction to the finale and the main allegro bursts with life. The conductor maintains good control of the varying speeds, maintaining structural unity. I thought this traversal of the Sixth was highly persuasive.

The extended Adagio opening of the Seventh Symphony unfolds here with a great feeling of inevitability and organic growth. At 5:31 the solo trombone rises majestically for the first time out of the orchestral texture. This symphony is a real test of a conductor’s ability to fit the structure and the several different tempi together seamlessly. It seems to me that Klaus Mäkelä is wholly successful. The second appearance of the solo trombone, after the Vivacissimo episode, is especially imposing but then is, if anything, trumped by the final trombone statement. I admired this reading of the Seventh very much.

Not content with giving us the seven symphonies, Mäkelä includes the astonishing late masterpiece, Tapiola. This performance is intense and highly focussed. Mäkelä may not surpass such classic accounts as those by Beecham or Karajan, but his performance is a fine achievement nonetheless, not least because he pays such great attention to detail. Yet never does he allow detail to get in the way of his view of the big picture. I’m glad this vivid performance was included in the cycle.

Finally, Mäkelä and the Oslo Phil play Three Late Fragments. These were discovered among the composer’s manuscripts after his death. They have been reconstructed by Timo Virtanen but no information is given in the booklet as to the extent of the reconstruction work that was necessary. The first of the three seems to be taking the harmonic and melodic language of the Seventh and Tapiola a stage further but there’s so little music – just 1:41 – that it’s impossible to guess where Sibelius might have gone next with it. That’s true of the third fragment – just 1:43 – as well. Shorn of any context, as is inevitable, the inclusion of these fragments seems to be of very limited value – the second one is a mere 17 seconds long. These bits of music have curiosity value but now that I have completed the reviewing assignment, I doubt I shall ever listen to them again.

However, I most certainly will be listening again to the symphonies and to Tapiola. This is a cycle of considerable merit. I have several fine Sibelius cycles in my collection – Osmo Vänskä’s Lahti and Minnesota cycles, Okko Kamu, Hannu Lintu and Sir Colin Davis’s Boston and London cycles among them. I think that Klaus Mäkelä’s cycle is a worthy and often exciting addition to their number. The playing of the Oslo Philharmonic is absolutely first class throughout while their young chief conductor clearly has a deep understanding of these magnificent works.

Decca have recorded these performances very well indeed. I listened at various times through both loudspeakers and headphones; whichever medium I used, the results were excellent. The sound has definition and impact and a great deal of inner detail emerges. The recordings were made under the restrictions of social distancing – what a ghastly term! I wonder if that meant that producer Jørn Pedersen and engineer Åisgeir Grong were obliged to use more microphones than might otherwise have been the case. Whether that’s the case or not, the audio results are top class and enable the performances to make the strongest possible impression on the listener.

I’m less happy with the documentation. The notes are by Andrew Mellor, an authority on Nordic music. His essay includes a good number of quotes from the conductor; these are interesting but Mr Mellor says precious little about the individual symphonies; indeed, three symphonies don’t even get a specific mention. I don’t blame Mellor for this; I’m sure he was given a brief and a word limit. However, anyone buying this set who doesn’t know the symphonies already will be short changed by the notes.

That one quibble aside, this is a notable Sibelius cycle, excellently played and recorded. I’ve heard that the next recording project for Klaus Mäkelä and the Oslo Phil concerns Shostakovich symphonies. Judging by the high artistic standards set in their Sibelius, I’m eager to hear them in Shostakovich

John Quinn

Previous reviews: David McDade ~ Roy Westbrook

Published: November 3, 2022

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