A Charmed New Baton Etches Vivid Arc Of Sibelius’ Symphonies

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Klaus Mäkelä conducting the Oslo Philharmonic. (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

Sibelius: The Seven Symphonies; Tapiola. Oslo Phllharmonic conducted by Klaus Mäkelä. Decca 485 2256. Four CDs.

DIGITAL REVIEW — Klaus Mäkelä is, beyond all discussion, the most dazzling new star in the conducting firmament. And his Decca cycle of Sibelius’ seven symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic affords a generous illustration of why the 26-year-old Finnish maestro has mesmerized seemingly everyone who has witnessed his work. This four-disc set, which also includes Sibelius’ last major orchestral essay, the tone poem Tapiola, is like one of those occasionally discovered canvases by an important artist that reveals a painting on both sides. Viewed from one perspective, we see a detailed image of Sibelius the evolving symphonist; but from a different viewpoint, it’s also a splendid and compelling self-portrait of the conductor.

Mäkelä is the Oslo Philharmonic’s chief conductor, a position offered to him after his debut with the orchestra in 2018, at age 22. That was a year after the Swedish Radio Symphony had signed him as principal guest conductor on the heels of his debut there. In 2019, now 23 years old, Mäkelä bowed with the Orchestre de Paris and was promptly named its music director. If that seems like a trend, consider Mäkelä’s latest splash: Earlier this year, Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which has been without a chief conductor since Daniele Gatti stepped down in 2018, named Mäkelä artistic partner and chief conductor-designate. Never mind that the aforementioned commitments make the starburst Finn unavailable to take over in Amsterdam until 2027. The Concertgebouw said no worries: Until then, it will just continue to vamp with guest conductors, giving Mäkelä steadily increasing weeks before he takes the top spot at age 31.

One might reasonably ask whether this tsunami of acclaim is at least to some extent self-fulfilling hype. The answer resounds in seeing Mäkelä conduct a great orchestra in person, as I did last season when he led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a complete performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. What Mäkelä conjured in that mystical music ranks with the finest performances I’ve ever heard from the Chicago Symphony, and that covers many a year. The insight, finesse, and not least patience that he evinced brought to mind Bernard Haitink and his way of working understatement to electrifying effect. I’m not referring to big, obvious gestures like the infernal dance of Kashchei, which the CSO would turn into an astonishing conflagration under almost any baton. I’m talking about the many quiet places: the evocation of the magic garden at the beginning, the serene and shimmering berceuse, indeed the ballet’s general aura of enchantment. It was the concept and the execution of a conductor well beyond this young man’s years. Mäkelä’s return to Chicago in February 2023 to conduct Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a red-circled date, no doubt for the CSO musicians as well as its patrons.

The pervasive subtlety and unfailing precision that animated Mäkelä’s Stravinsky abide everywhere in his Sibelius cycle. On my initial pass through the seven symphonies, I listened in reverse order, an illuminating approach I first took several years ago in a study of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There, I began with Act V. Here, I commenced with the Seventh and Sixth Symphonies, surely the two least performed, in the U.S. anyway. So great is the aesthetic distance from Sibelius’ openly Romantic First Symphony (1899) to the abstruse Seventh (1924) that the latter might as well be the work of a different composer; indeed, one could argue that it is. In the all-too-terse album notes by Andrew Mellor, whose excellent new book The Northern Silence (Yale University Press) offers the useful commentary lacking here, the author quotes Mäkelä declaring the Seventh “the most perfect” of Sibelius’ symphonies. Mäkelä captures the starkness, the concision, the objective Stravinskian cool of this elegantly crafted 24-minute work, which unfolds as a single movement, in singular complexity, cast in stunningly dark C major.

What I find especially striking about Mäkelä’s Sibelius cycle is the distinct profile and specific character he imparts to each symphony. He has the virtuosic and style-conscious Oslo Philharmonic expressly attuned to the pitch and pull, and the gravitational center, of the individual works. Thus the Sixth, which Sibelius characterized as awash in fresh, cold water, spins out with a vitality and buoyancy that belie its modal D minor setting. Like the Seventh, the Sixth Symphony evolves through constant shifts in harmony, rhythm, and tempo, and Mäkelä manages those fluid elements with clear-eyed purpose — like a Wagnerian scheme of evolving drama, albeit filtered through the wide-angle symphonic lens of Mahler.

I often thought of Mahler as I plowed and replowed Mäkelä’s Sibelius. It was in a meeting between the two composers — Sibelius was the younger by five years — that Mahler famously characterized his composition of symphonies as the creation of whole worlds. Even in Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony (1915, revised 1916 and ’19), where I think the two composers come nearest to intersecting, one sees the difference between them spelled out clearly: Where Mahler’s vast canvases, with the exception of the gentle Fourth Symphony, evoke a cosmic embrace, the Sibelius Fifth is a searing, intellectual precis of the human condition in the world. The crystalline specificity that Mäkelä achieves in the Fifth Symphony, with its heroic consummation, leads one directly back to Beethoven — indeed, to that other Fifth Symphony.

Klaus Mäkelä has been named artistic partner and chief conductor-designate of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. (Marco Borggreve)

Sibelius’ Third and Fourth Symphonies might be construed as an opposing pair: proposition and counterproposal, ying and yang. The three-movement Third was something of an experiment after the Second Symphony, where Sibelius had doubled down on, and certainly refined, the Romantic rhetoric of the First. Mäkelä gets right to the bracing, lyrical core of the Third Symphony, which, in its rhythmic propulsion, textural clarity, and efficient structure, rather prefigures the Sixth. The Oslo Philharmonic especially distinguishes itself in the finesse it brings to the work’s prevailing chamber-music transparency.

It’s hard to imagine a more radical turn than Sibelius made from the Third Symphony to the Symphony No. 4 in A minor, a work as intense, emotionally fraught, and fundamentally bleak as Mahler’s own A minor symphony, the Sixth. While I was preparing this review, an opportunity to make a direct comparison of the two works under the same conductor arose when I caught Mäkelä in the Mahler Sixth with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, streamed live in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall series. The Mahler offered another ear-opening instance of Mäkelä’s precision and fluency, his awareness of both the big-picture concept and the expressive moment. The Concertgebouw already felt like his band. Meanwhile, in the Sibelius Fourth, the supple playing and profound psychological drama Mäkelä draws from Oslo bears out an observation by the conductor in the booklet notes. Covid’s disruption of the orchestra’s programing in spring 2021 ended up bringing Sibelius into almost exclusive focus, he says: “We played, played, played and then recorded. Sibelius’ music, like that of any composer, is a language you have to learn, and the circumstances under which we recorded actually played to our advantage.”

Those five symphonies, the most innovative and personal and indeed greatest of Sibelius’ works in the form, are reason enough to spend time with this compendium. Those, plus the really wild and crazy tone poem Tapiola, the composer’s final large-scale orchestra work before the long silence of his last decades. Evoking the forest-spirit Tapio, this 20-minute arabesque is a flight of Sibelius’ unfettered harmonic fancy: Debussy careens into expressionism. Mäkelä manages to capture not only the work’s brilliance and daring but also its peculiar coherence.

Of the ever-popular and ubiquitous First and Second Symphonies, I have little to say. Mäkelä’s reading of the First is sure-handed, suitably impulsive, and catchy. The more elegant, engaging, and consequential Second displays a rigor and freshness to go with its majesty. Here is the Oslo Philharmonic with its sonic banners unfurled, and here Mäkelä affirms his ascendancy, a megastar forming — the Leonard Bernstein, the Bernard Haitink for a new generation.