Do some orchestras still retain a sound of their own? During the Karajan era you could identify the Berliner Philharmoniker by Lothar Koch’s unique oboe, not to mention the opulence of the strings. For a long time, French ensembles signalled their identity through the timbre of their woodwind and brass sections. Hearing the Orchestre de Paris on their current European tour, in the capable hands of Klaus Mäkelä, I felt it appropriate to consider its collective sound and the effect its Chief Conductor, only recently turned 27, is having on the players.

Janine Jansen, Klaus Mäkelä and the Orchestre de Paris
© Sören L Schirmer | Deutsche Klassik

What was apparent from the start was a weightiness and solidity to the string sound, not especially warm or refined, but nonetheless delivering a huge punch. Mäkelä likes quite snappy chords, which in the accompaniment to Janine Jansen’s playing of Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor reminded me of the boxing-ring, taut, powerful and at times dramatically unsettling. There was one Gallic touch I hadn’t seen elsewhere, the principal oboe standing during the tuning process before the concert, turning to face the different sections. However, both he and the rest of the woodwind section often lacked character, their sound perfectly integrated but often erring on the side of reticence. Nor was there much fruitiness among the brass players. Yet the personnel list indicated two-thirds with Francophone names. Perhaps this is one further example of the way in which so many orchestras are now moving towards a global identity.

Almost a century ago the talk was of “das Wunder Karajan”. That phrase can easily be adapted to refer to the Finnish shooting-star that is Mäkelä. What he does is always musical, never imposing himself on the flow or yielding to idiosyncratic indulgences. Nor does he feel the need to conduct every single bar of the score, a sure sign of his confidence in the players. He is preternaturally able to energise them, kick-starting waves of electrical energy with big gestures, leaping into the air to underline the intensity of the moment. Though he was impressive in isolated episodes of this concert, the sum of the individual parts never quite added up to a satisfying whole. The talents are prodigious, the maturity will undoubtedly come later.

Klaus Mäkelä, Janine Jansen and the Orchestre de Paris
© Sören L Schirmer | Deutsche Klassik

Jansen turned in an expansive account of the concerto. From the gentlest of starts, she conjured up anything but an icy Nordic landscape. She seemed to be floating high above the clouds, soaring like the proverbial lark, extracting a plenitude of richness from her 1715 Stradivari and then applying a searing-iron to some of the ferocious scales of the extended cadenza. In the Finale she set off at a remarkably brisk pace, the early syncopations taking on a curious stuttering quality, while she crouched and then gyrated on the podium. 

Writing to a friend in 1829, just two years after Beethoven’s death, Berlioz stated the intention behind his Symphonie fantastique: ”I mean to stagger the musical world.” I missed a sense of opium-filled drowsiness in the Rêveries, and the stretching of the limbs as the Allegro agitato e appassionato assai section got going was a little over-manicured. A young man’s headiness should not be polished away. Best of the five movements was the Scène aux champs, replete with strong contrasts of colour and texture, the delicacies of phrasing especially effective. The Marche au supplice lacked menace while the Finale exposed a dearth of the demonic.

Was this altogether staggering and mind-blowing? No. Did I expect too much, wanting perfection on a plate? That is, of course, the raison d’être of any reviewer.