It has been a long time since a very young conductor was as in demand as the Finn Klaus Mäkelä (1996). He has been a guest of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra several times this season, always with great success. He has been chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic since 2020, where his contract was extended from three to seven years (until ’26/’27) before he even started there. From next season, Mäkelä will combine Oslo with the Orchester de Paris, also until 2027, for 12 weeks per season.
In short: Mäkelä is hot. During its seasonal presentation, the Concertgebouw Orchestra announced on Monday that it would come up with news about a new chief conductor before the summer. You may hope that the name Mäkelä will fall, because quality, tradition and innovation are guaranteed with him.
All right, he’ll be stuck in Oslo and Paris for another five years. But you can also interpret this as valuable extra maturing time, which can easily be bridged in Amsterdam with excellent guest conductors (Iván Fischer, for example) and a appetizing title for Mäkelä as ‘chief-conductor designate’ – so that the Concertgebouw with Mäkelä also gains in attraction for foreign bookers.
In March, Mäkelä signed an exclusive contract with record label Decca, the first for a conductor in forty years (Riccardo Chailly preceded him in 1978). The collaboration starts with an exclamation mark: with the Oslo Philharmonic, Mäkelä recorded the seven symphonies of his compatriot Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) as well as the symphonic poem tapiola and three short sketches for the Eighth Symphony – together good for four and a half hours of music or four CDs.
If you listen to Sibelius’ music, it is unbelievable that he only passed away in 1957. Its roots can be heard in the late nineteenth century; his music exudes Romanticism, Finnish national pride, an idiom that could be summed up in one sentence as Tchaikovsky and Bruckner’s singing love baby.
That’s where the shoe pinches right away. Marriages are broken on the love for Sibelius. Too nationalistic, conventional, fragmented in symphonic form. And appreciated by the Nazis, besides. Philosopher Adorno wrote as early as 1938: “Not only is Sibelius vastly overrated, his work fundamentally suffers from any quality.”
The number of performances by the Concertgebouw Orchestra is typical of this difficult reception history: they played a symphony by Sibelius 134 times; much less than Bruckner (811×) or Tchaikovsky (821×). Remarkably enough, orchestras in the United Kingdom and the United States have always appreciated Sibelius.
Back to Klaus Mäkelä. Seven symphonies by Sibelius as a binge listening experience is a lot even for the enthusiast, although Mäkelä plays the contrasts between and within the symphonies (which together span 26 years) so well. Second consumptive aside: the Sibelius aficionado can already draw on an impressive competitive discography, from mastodons like Colin Davis or Mariss Jansons as well as from rebels (Santtu-Mattias Rouvali) and specialists (Osmo Vänska).
And yet Mäkelä makes a striking statement with this box. Here is a chef who is causing an international furore and who pays tribute to his origins. Who is not afraid of large-scale enterprises. And much more important: that musically convincing. Not because Mäkelä’s Sibeliuses are considered in every detail, but because he presents a thick sample of his musical abilities in four and a half hours of music.
At the micro level, there is some evidence of the build-up of tension: Mäkelä wants to say a lot quickly and sometimes lets the Oslo players play their trump cards a little early. But what predominates is admiration for the symphonic voluptuousness to which Mäkelä inspires his musicians. In the First Symphony (still quite classical) you are put on edge by beautifully pastoral woodwinds. The accelerations that Mäkelä regularly delivers are exciting, as is the almost cinematic way in which he conjures up landscapes before your eyes – a product of his singing phrasing on the strings (Mäkelä is also a cellist himself).
Speaking of cinematic: the pulsating opening of Symphony No. 2 you turn ten times before you know it. Fascinating when listening to such a whole cycle (the Third is less interesting again) is the desolate atmosphere of the Fourth: a huge contrast with the preceding and Mäkelä never lets the musicians play again. The noble copper in the Fifth prick up your ears, the curious ‘Andante’ is a microcosm in itself. In the Seventh open new horizons and abysses, and the Oslo Philharmonic realizes a depth of sound that is also reflected in the performance of the symphonic poem tapiola typing.
In construction and emotional depth, Mäkelä’s interpretation can still grow (compare for example the ‘Allegretto’ from the Second with him and Mariss Jansons), but there is so much shining talent in return. Those free woodwinds, that roaring string corps, the collective well-being in sound: we are going to hear a lot of wonderful things from Mäkelä in the coming sixty years.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 31 March 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of March 31, 2022