Photo, Barbican/Mark Allan

Friday, June 3, 2022

Barbican Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Faced with the remarkable Klaus Mäkelä, still only twenty-six, an A-class world orchestra in the Oslo Philharmonic, and an exalted soprano like Lise Davidsen – celebrating that illustrious Scandinavian tradition from Jenny Lind to Flagstad and Nilsson – a special concert was always promised. Beyond special is what we got. Opening the programme, the F-sharp Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony impressed for its pacing, unanimity of ensemble and precision attack. The harmonic gears and climaxes grinded and aspired, the massed voice of the orchestra – antiphonal violins and violas – taking on a magnificent tension and hue, the fortissimo chordal cries around figure 28 sending a chill.

Lise Davidsen – whose new Decca album of Grieg with Leif Ove Andsnes is necessary listening, as starrily beautiful as her 2019 Strauss with the Philharmonia and Salonen – came on for less than fifteen minutes to weave spells with Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs in the composer’s 1928 orchestration, the shortest utterances turned into lanterns of flickering nostalgia, Mahlerian vintage. Davidsen is blessed with the most glorious vocals, here intimate, there sunrise-projected, riding the orchestra with easy fluidity, not a note, pitch or word compromised, legato and purity to the fore. Like Mäkelä she phrases in long, seamless lines, poetry and music, nuance and sentiment in delicate, magical, sustained, powerful embrace. Visually pale, marbled Rodinesque hands, gracious of curtsey, her regal deportment, the unhurried walk-on and walk-off, was a masterclass in presentation. Even her page-turns were elegant. Two Flagstad-vintage encores, numbers four and five from Sibelius’s 1901/02 Opus 37 collection – ‘Var det en dröm?’ (Was it a Dream?) and ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’ (The maiden came from her lover’s tryst) – glowed supremely, the emotional swirls and blush of the second all but upstaging Berg. Occasionally I wondered if Mäkelä, busy body language notwithstanding, was perhaps a touch casual in his support, his left-hand more dapper and flaccid than expected. But we only had to shut our eyes to know that all was well.

On a high, having flown into London from a three-night Sibelius run under Mäkelä in Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, the Oslo players gathered themselves in the second half for an epic Fifth Symphony. This was a muscular, taut, enriching reading. Important as much for the demonstration brass and string execution, nobility defined, as for a striking woodwind contribution (lonely solo bassoon six minutes in not least), a host of characters, images and scenes, lyric songs and pulsating dances, filling the canvas, more so than one usually hears. Here was a performance ‘produced’ with immaculate attention to articulation, detail, accent and silence. Engined, repetitious, syncopated string rhythms were tightly co-ordinated. Tuttis were incisive and intense, like granite cliffs towering between night clouds and blue skies. Befitting the exactness of the writing, drags and ruffs theatrically edged, all manner of stick heads colouring the sonority, the timpani were accorded rightful soloistic status, the by now customary flams of the final two unisons thundering forth with imperial authority: how frustrated Sibelius must have been never to have heard these played as he wanted them. Mäkelä’s measure of the work’s architecture, his pacing of its tonal rhythm and cadences, was commanding and clarifying. The tempo shifts of the (revised 1919) first movement especially were more finely graded and organically placed than I can remember in a long while. Come the end, the great ‘swan’ theme (‘Thor’s hammer’) circled the hall – full-throated, timeless, cathartic. ”Pieces of a mosaic from the floor of heaven” set in gold and the jewels of caverns deep within northern mountains.

”Then the hero Lemminkäinen, Made from cares the fleetest racers, Sable racers from his sorrows, Reins he made from days of evil, From his sacred pains made saddles. To the saddle, quickly springing, Galloped he away from trouble … Galloped to his Island-dwelling” (Kalevala, Canto XXX). ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return‘ (the final section of the Opus 22 Legends – same key as the Symphony, young Sibelius pre-1900 – made for a blazing, full throttle Allegro con fuoco encore, the (enlarged) orchestra blemishless, maybe a violin desk or two short but the viola section excelling in a spectacularly involved display. One felt good to be alive.

RELEASED TODAY, March 25: Klaus Mäkelä & the Oslo Philharmonic record Sibelius’s Seven Symphonies, Tapiola, and Late Fragments, for Decca.

RELEASED TODAY, June 3: Munich Philharmonic – Celibidache conducts Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony and Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite – on the Münchner Philharmoniker’s MPHIL label.

Klaus & Oslo Phil at BBC Proms:

Prom 35/August 12