Sibelius: The Symphonies and Tapiola review – Mäkelä veers between the outstanding and prosaic | Jean Sibelius


The Finn Klaus Mäkelä is still only 26, but he has already risen supersonically through the conducting ranks. He’s currently at the helm of two leading European orchestras, the Oslo Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris, and has become only the third conductor in the history of the label to be signed to an exclusive recording contract by Decca, following in the footsteps of Georg Solti and Riccardo Chailly. Whether Mäkelä will prove to be an artist on a par with those distinguished predecessors remains to be seen, but his debut with the company is certainly a statement of intent – a complete cycle of the Sibelius symphonies with the Oslo orchestra, recorded in the Norwegian capital last year.

Klaus Mäkelä and the Oslo Philharmonic: Sibelius album cover.
Sibelius album cover. Photograph: Decca

Of course, there’s no shortage of outstanding cycles of these symphonies already available, and in the final analysis Mäkelä’s set does not challenge the second of Colin Davis’s three versions, say, or either of those conducted by Osmo Vänskä. It’s frustratingly uneven, with performances veering between the outstanding and the prosaic, though the orchestral playing is consistently fine. Mäkelä’s approach to the First Symphony sets the tone for much of what follows; he seems to treat the work more like a symphonic poem than as a rigorous piece of symphonic architecture, with a succession of brightly coloured episodes that don’t necessarily connect, and while the First is by far the most diffuse and derivative of Sibelius’s symphonies, it’s a more cogent work than he suggests.

Underlining the set’s unevenness, though, the First is followed by a superb account of the Second Symphony, which perfectly encapsulates its mix of organic rigour and rugged defiance. This and Mäkelä’s account of the dark, brooding Fourth, which is suitably austere and never over-interpreted, are the highlights of his cycle, while the Third is probably its low point, with no sense of coherence at all. In the Fifth, the great turning points – the transition from the opening movement into scherzo, and the emergence of the glorious “swan theme” in the finale, two of the most thrilling moments in 20th-century music – are made to seem almost matter-of-fact, while the performances of Sixth and Seventh are thoroughly accomplished in a rather detached way, but nothing more.

The Seventh is followed by the last of Sibelius’s tone poems, Tapiola, revisiting the chilly landscapes explored in that symphony, and also by three fragments, less than four minutes of music altogether, which are thought to be all that survives of the score of an eighth symphony that Sibelius seems to have destroyed sometime during the second world war. It may bring one of the greatest of all symphonic journeys full circle, but the performances themselves leave many questions unanswered en route.

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