Oslo Konserthus, Munkedamsveien 14, 0115 Oslo, Norway

Broadcast Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

As conductors go Helsinki-born Klaus Mäkelä is young, not yet twenty-five, but with a career trajectory impressive beyond his years. He is the new chief conductor and artistic adviser of the Oslo Philharmonic, taking over from Vasily Petrenko, as well as music director elect of the Orchestre de Paris, succeeding Daniel Harding in 2022. From a professional musical family, he studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki – conducting with Jorma Panula, and cello with Marko Ylönen, Timo Hanhinen and Hannu Kiiski. In suit and tie, he cuts a business-like figure on the rostrum. Keeping his emotions relatively guarded, Blomstedt-like, efficiency before dramatisation, it’s hard to immediately penetrate his façade. The opposite of his man-in-the-woods compatriot Santtu-Matias Rouvali. He takes on the big masterworks fearlessly. A spectacular Shostakovich Seven with the hr-Sinfonieorchester in Frankfurt thirteen months ago. Before that, in January 2019, a personally triumphant Oslo account of Beethoven Nine – bespectacled and serious, aged twenty-three, soloists within choir – witnessing a musician with a disciplined, refined sense of large-scale architecture, rhythm and clarity of intent, able to deliver fibre, profundity and the glory of brotherhood without intervention, coloration or choreography. The school of thought believing that such music is best performed by more life-experienced minds isn’t his. History supports him. Mahler was twenty-six when he first trod the Ninth’s waters, Furtwängler twenty-seven, Horenstein twenty-eight.

“Forceful Melancholy – the span between melancholy and brute force”. Launching HarrisonParrott’s Virtual Circle platform, this dance-inspired webcast marking the 155th-anniversary of Sibelius’s birth was pre-recorded in mid-October. From the boyish enthusiasm yet grounded authority of Mäkelä’s introductory remarks (in English), through the involvement, vigour and passion of his rehearsal clips, to the superlative commitment of the end result, here gleamed music-making of astonishing command and vision. Way, way beyond just another day in the office. A celebration.

Musicians often talk about colour in music. Sometimes temperature. Describing himself as “a huge lover of perfume – delicate, multi-layered, warm, spicy”, Mäkelä reminded us that aroma can also come into the equation. Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, Debussy’s Danses sacrée et danse profane, and the ‘Epilogue’ from Rolf Gupta’s Earth’s Song afforded him every opportunity to illustrate the point – and his star players, led by Elise Båtnes, to explore every subtlety and vibration of the spectrum, from hushed whisper to virtuoso cascades. Silky strings, outstanding woodwind, first clarinet especially, grandly weighted and co-ordinated brass, characterful timpani, nothing spared … The Kodály was a paced ‘Hungarian’ outing, free of ragged corners, with enough time to let events unfold naturally, for phrases to speak and bend, for moodscapes to unfold in all weathers. Burning cauldrons within. Debussy’s Danses were magically antique – frail, gorgeous, fluttering dreams, nuanced fantasy – with Birgitte Volan Håvik, principal harpist of the Oslo Philharmonic since 2008, in elevated form, spiritually and musically. Delicate, flaxen-haired, in a blue-green gown, like some Freyja figure out of Norse legend, face brushed by the wind, eyes closed but then opening heavenwards in moments of ecstatic wonderment, she held the stage regally, spinning intoxicating circles of beauty, caressing the listener in humanity and warmth.

The composer and conductor Rolf Gupta, born in Uppsala in 1967, wrote his Earth’s Song oratorio (Jordens Sang) for the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra Centennial. Premiered 14 November 2019 and awarded the 2020 Norwegian Critics’ Association Prize, it’s a creation myth work based on 3,000-year-old Indian texts, conceived on a vast imaginative and sonic scale. At 17.5 minutes (longer than earlier readings), the ‘Epilogue’, the sixth part, proved a draining, riveting encounter, Mäkelä drawing attention to the score’s “long lines, overtones, peculiar sonorities, and oceans of sound”. Dynamically tracing a night-day-night arc, Strauss Alpine Symphony reminiscent, it calls for all manner of orchestral effects, with instruments and playing techniques journeying from barest audibility/possibility to monstrous confrontation. Designed almost for a psycho-drama or polar landscape, a mysterious universe unfolded. A voyage through deep space … asteroid dust and sunless rocks floating by … planetary approach … sighs, ghosts, fade-out. With the orchestra at full strength, Mäkelä, without baton, hewed an epic tale laden with birth-to-death resonances, ethereal images, embryonic/infernal rustlings, long pedal points, snarling brass, shuddering gravity percussion, subterranean caverns, crevasses of life, magma flows beneath blue-green ice fields. Gupta, tearful, found the occasion overwhelming. Staggering.

To conclude, Sibelius’s First Symphony, in Mäkelä’s view “one of the greatest first symphonies ever written, a young man’s passions and disappointments”. He did it magnificent justice, offsetting dance and song, emphasising the chordal punctuations of the outer movements to striking theatrical and structural advantage. Expectedly, the opening clarinet solo suspended time and belief. The second movement dealt in soft string tones, pulsating harp, pointed entries, low register rhythms. The counterpoint of the Scherzo glowed, ensemble and balance exemplary, kettledrums strident. Likewise the togetherness of the Finale, a ‘painting’ of high Romantic intensity, elongated phrasing, and glorious apotheosis, the closing pair of pizzicato chords as sudden as the sun dipping below the horizon.

Not so much a name to watch as a name already here: Mäkelä has what it takes.