Klaus Mäkelä is fast making a name for himself at the Oslo Philharmonic, impressing with his new Decca Sibelius symphony cycle and winning praise for an inclusive, inspirational style of conducting that has seen the orchestra emerge from the pandemic as a stronger, more cohesive ensemble. But how would they cope with a handbrake turn away from 19th- and 20th-century repertoire to one of the pillars of the Baroque, Bach’s Mass in B minor?

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Oslo Philharmonic Choir and Oslo Philharmonic
© Fred Olav Vatne | Oslo Philharmonic

The piece had not been performed by the orchestra and the Philharmonic Choir for 22 years, and never in their current home, the 1970s Oslo Concert Hall. The Choir would normally field between 85 to 90 singers, but last night they were down to 73. Some of the absentees, I’m told, were Covid casualties, others simply had no voice at all: two years away from regular singing takes its toll on vocal stamina, and the one thing the Mass in B minor requires is buckets of stamina. Factor in the loss of rehearsal time due to Covid and the challenge begins to look daunting. Add the notoriously tricky acoustic of the hall and you have the ingredients for a truly difficult evening.

With all these challenges to overcome it was remarkable that, for the most part, Mäkelä pulled off such a fluent performance. He had a few tricks up his sleeve, including bringing the cor anglais, oboe, bassoon and flute players right to the front of the stage, which had the dramatic effect of putting this orchestral engine room right at the centre of the action, allowing us to hear those parts with particularly clarity, and to enjoy some outstanding individual solos.

The Oslo Philharmonic Choir and Oslo Philharmonic
© Fred Olav Vatne | Oslo Philharmonic

And some serious work on Baroque playing style had obviously gone on among the strings. While it was a fuller, richer sound than we are used to hearing from period instrument ensembles, plenty of bouncy, deft and short bowing and an almost total lack of vibrato kept the score aloft, even when some of Mäkelä’s tempi were on the stately side, probably for the sake of the choir, who, he had decided, would sing the whole piece – all 120 minutes of it – without a break.

Not that he was above sending the occasional firework out into the auditorium. His Cum sancto spiritu must be a contender for fastest ever, and the choir responded, with quick-fire entries and real attack. At other moments – the Credo, for instance – the stamina began to lag and intonation suffered. It’s a very big sing, and when divided into two choirs, firepower is naturally diminished. And the dead air of the acoustic swallowed most of the vocal colour, so it’s no wonder this orchestra and choir is busy raising funds to build its own concert hall in Oslo. It can’t come too soon.

Alice Coote and Mari Eriksmoen
© Fred Olav Vatne | Oslo Philharmonic

Among the soloists, mezzo soprano Alice Coote shone brightest, dismissing the serpentine Laudamus te with élan and moving us powerfully in the Agnus Dei, addressing the audience directly with her profound message. It was a joy to hear the chattering bassoons beneath the ringing horn solo in Quoniam tu solus, sung with verve by bass-baritone Milan Siljanov. Bright soprano Mari Eriksmoen charmed in the Christe eleison duet, but tenor Andres J Dahlin was having a bad night, entering under the note in the Benedictus and sounding strained throughout, even with a superb flute obbligato from Ting-Wei Chen.

Mäkelä conducts with a deceptively easy style, letting the players get on with it until he wants a particular motif or figure emphasised. Then he is all action, up on the balls of his feet, drawing out the sound he requires, smiling encouragingly. Trust me, he seems to say. I know what I’m doing. 

Audiences can judge for themselves when he tours the orchestra across Europe later this year. There's no doubt music-lovers will be queueing to hear this 25-year-old man of the moment.

Stephen’s press trip to Oslo was funded by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra