Sibelius Symphonies 1 7 Makela Decca 4852256

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No 1 in E minor, Op 39
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 43
Symphony No 3 in C major, Op 52
Symphony No 4 in A minor, Op 63
Symphony No 5 in E-flat major, Op 82
Symphony No 6 in D minor, Op 104
Symphony No 7 in C major, Op 105
Tapiola, Op 112
Three Late Fragments (reconstructed by Timo Virtanen)
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Mäkelä
rec. 2021, Konserthus, Oslo, Norway
Decca 4852256 [4 CDs: 264]

This set has had a mixed reception, yet no fewer than three of my MusicWeb colleagues all really liked it. I refer you to those reviews by David McDade, Roy Westbrook and John Quinn for their detailed encomia – though DMcD provides more qualified praise. In addition, for what it’s worth, Gramophone’s Edward Seckerson hailed it as “An uber-auspicious debut”. On the other hand, I have heard and seen very negative judgements from the Guardian’s Andrew Clements and the resident YouTube panjandrum who must remain nameless – and with both of whom I almost invariably disagree. To some degree, then, a fourth review from me might seem superfluous. Nonetheless, having only recently become acquainted with it and being intrigued by the polarisation of responses, I am proffering a few thoughts, especially as a couple of years have elapsed since its release.

I think that, prejudice against youth apart – Mäkelä was only 25 at the time of recording – one reason for disliking his Sibelius might reside in having a fixed idea about what the Sibelian sound world should be. If, for example, one’s first exposure to his symphonies was via Karajan – a great Sibelius conductor – then the grand, sumptuous, “Rolls-Royce” style will be de rigueur – but this is leaner, cleaner, clearer, more “modern” and streamlined in effect. Even older esteemed exponents such as Ormandy and Berglund create a much more upholstered, velvety orchestral sound than Mäkelä, whose Oslo Philharmonic nonetheless play out of their skins. They permit the kind of transparency of instrumental and harmonic lines which predecessors cannot rival, especially as that clarity is so magically enhanced by digital sound from Decca of absolutely unrivalled and unparalleled excellence. As an example: I first played favourite recordings of the Seventh Symphony by Karajan, Ormandy and Berglund, then Mäkelä’s – and was every bit as entranced by his as by the versions from his illustrious predecessors. It is difficult to talk of Sibelius’ music without resorting to clichés about frozen wastes, icy streams, lowering forests etc. but, it is indeed rooted in the Finnish landscape and in many ways Mäkelä’s relative spareness of orchestral sound is more apt than the velvety sheen of the BPO or the shiny, V8 purring of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Nor do I for one moment buy the criticism that it is so string-dominated as to drown out the woodwind and timpani; that is pure invention – and I’ll let you guess whence that fabricated accusation originated…

Anyway, Karajan never recorded the Third, so if we are talking of complete sets, he is out of the running. I know that as soon as I acquired this one, I played it all straight through and found it to be wonderful. Nothing is perfect, but these performers throw themselves into the music with abandon.

Yes; the outer movements of the First are perhaps a little over-stated, but at least Mäkelä does not repeat the failing of his Stravinsky recording (review) which was simply too tame. The second movement is thrilling – in fact, the whole performance is extraordinarily energised and the Big Tune in the finale is grandly articulated before a truly impressive peroration. The Second is simply lovely; again, the translucent sound does so much to reveal the individual instrumental strands of the score. Just occasionally, I do get the sense of too much “point-making” but at least it’s never bland in the manner of so many modern recordings; these are (to borrow another cliché) immediate, “red-blooded” performances, although perhaps sometimes the emotionalism is too overt and insufficiently graduated. So it goes throughout the series; I was recently persuaded by Rouvali’s new release (review) to adopt a renewed appreciation of the Fourth, but Mäkelä‘s is virtually as good; the swing of the introduction to the Fifth is infectious and pervades the whole first movement and the drive and sonority of its finale are compelling; that quality carries through to a beautifully gauged Sixth and a really impressive Seventh which might not quite match the momentum and coherence of Ormandy’s and Karajan’s, but it is still beautifully played. The bonus of a searing Tapiola and the tantalising fragments of a never-attempted symphony complete a splendid set.

I am eschewing more detailed reactions to individual moments and movements in the symphonies, as my colleagues have already performed that task admirably, so I would merely be redundantly echoing their findings, but I want to emphasise the alternative validity of these interpretations from a remarkably gifted young conductor. You may indeed evaluate these performances for yourself and compare your response to mine by sampling them on YouTube; I know that in certain moods I shall return to them as readily as I do to established favourites.

Ralph Moore

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