July 21, 2022


Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1-7; Tapiola; Three Late Fragments. Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Klaus Mäkelä. Decca. $29.95 (4 CDs).

     Consistently excellent orchestral performance by an ensemble not usually associated with Sibelius almost makes the new set of the composer’s symphonies on Decca a triumph. But not quite: no matter how fine the orchestra, it is still in service to its conductor, and this is a cycle whose conductor seems not quite sure where to take the music, how to present it, or just how to use the first-rate sound and balance that the Oslo Philharmonic offers throughout.

     It is not so much that Klaus Mäkelä lacks a vision for the symphonies as that he has entirely different visions for most of them. To some extent, this is fine – it is only retrospectively that a symphonic cycle can be seen to have clear connective tissue. But in this case, Mäkelä as interpreter seems unsure what he himself wants to say in leading each symphony – he treats each work not just as a separate piece but almost as a separate kind of piece, resulting in a feeling of episodic symphonic production by a composer whose symphonies in fact have clear developmental traits throughout their sequence.

     The contrast between the First and Second symphonies can and indeed does stand for the overall unevenness of this cycle. Symphony No. 2 is excellent, the strings (which are first-rate throughout all the music) beautifully balanced and contrasted with the clarity of the woodwinds, the oboe in the third movement’s Trio simply beautiful, the blazing finale lit with fervor without ever seeming pretentious. Here Mäkelä perfectly balances the hesitancy and halting nature of elements of the symphony, especially in the first movement, with its structural arc and its eventual triumphal proclamation. But Symphony No. 1, in contrast, seems to go almost nowhere. Here the music is episodic and frequently disconnected, with individual sections nicely handled but little sense of overall structure or forward momentum. It can certainly be argued that the First is both derivative and diffuse, but the best conductors accept these elements and meld them in such a way as to show where Sibelius is going, or would go in the future. Mäkelä simply presents, making no real attempt to connect the dots musically or emotionally; so the symphony comes across more like a symphonic poem, and a rather scattered one at that.

     The next symphonic pair here also turns out to be a study in contrast. In the Third as in the First, there is little cohesiveness, with the first movement fast-paced, the articulation light throughout the work, the general sense of motion ever-present but the emotional connection largely missing. The best thing here is the sheer clarity of the playing – again, the orchestra itself almost, through its quality, rescuing a rather mundane and overly straightforward interpretation. On the other hand, the Fourth, which opens with sharp intensity that never quite lets up throughout, has a level of personal tragedy and sorrow that absolutely compels attention and is little short of riveting to hear. It is true that some of the lightness of playing from the Third persists in the Fourth, but this seems, if anything, to counterbalance the weightiness of the angst-laden communicativeness of the score. This is not an interpretation that will necessarily please everyone, but it is highly worthy on its own terms and makes a strong case for the extent of Sibelius’ maturation by this stage of his symphonic development.

     The Fifth is a mixed bag. The playing is just wonderful – what an impressive orchestra this turns out to be in this music! – but details of the interpretation misfire. The accelerando in the first movement is perfunctory, and the horns in the finale seem too far away for full effectiveness – although the very end of the symphony is beautifully handled. The Sixth comes across as emotionally lightweight, the clarity of the playing here actually working against emotional communicativeness. For some reason, Mäkelä downplays the contrasts that pervade the score, producing a sense of emotional withholding rather than full commitment – and while the third movement is highly energetic, the second and fourth seem restrained to the point of being blasé. The Seventh, though, is another high point in the cycle: although the transitions between sections in this one-movement work do not always flow smoothly, the sense of austere momentum is palpable, with the trombones especially impressive in setting a tone that may remind listeners that these instruments were once used primarily for emphasis in church music. Mäkelä follows the Seventh with Sibelius’ final tone poem, Tapiola, where the attentiveness to detail that made Symphony No. 1 seem episodic serves the music very well, allowing for constant shifts of color and mood that produce a highly expressive totality. And at the very end of this four-CD set are three fragments, lasting in total less than four minutes, that may (or may not) have been elements considered by Sibelius for a Symphony No. 8. The uncertainty of the provenance of those three fragments somehow seems totally appropriate for the conclusion of this beautifully recorded, excellently played Sibelius cycle: Mäkelä never fully establishes his own vision of the Sibelius symphonies and never fully embraces any particular overview that he thinks the composer himself might have possessed; instead, Mäkelä treats different symphonies so differently that a certain sense of incoherence pervades the cycle as a whole. Certainly it moves chronologically from the First through those final fragments, but structurally and emotionally, it often seems to lurch here and there, the interpretations filled with ups and downs that do not – within individual works or in the cycle as a whole – end up producing a cohesive totality.

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