The aquatic theme set out by this year’s Baltic Sea Festival continued full flow ahead with Monday’s concert with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and its principal guest conductor Klaus Mäkelä. With an eclectic early 20th-century programme, the orchestra and Mäkelä impressed in Zemlinsky’s lushly gargantuan tone poem Die Seejungfrau, but the remainder of the concert lacked the same sparkle.

Klaus Mäkelä
© Mattias Ahlm | Swedish Radio

Alexander von Zemlinsky based his 1903 orchestral fantasy on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid, and the score has more than a touch of fantasy to it. The piece calls for an enormous orchestra, and the orchestration alone was enough to make Strauss at his most bombastic, or even Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, feel modestly anaemic. With its swooping horns and ever more vertiginous violin solos, Die Seejungfrau is – if nothing else – a delightful exercise in Viennese post-Romantic excess.

Luckily, there was more to Die Seejungfrau than technicolour orchestration and the sheer excitement of a huge ensemble. The source material seems to have inspired some utterly breathtaking moments, including the stunning finale – having elected to drown herself to save the prince, the titular mermaid is turned into a daughter of the air. After a good 45 minutes of dense orchestral bravura, the piece finishes with remarkable calm, strings, harp and brass floating higher and higher

Zemlinsky wrote the piece soon after the end of his relationship with Alma Schindler – who not long after went on to become Alma Mahler – and it is at least tempting to think that some of his despair found its way into this story of doomed love. To be sure, there was much anguish and heartbreak – Mäkelä and the orchestra brought out the erotically charged despair of the third movement beautifully – but it never quite reached the bottomless, existential depths of, say, Mahler himself. Thundering climaxes, especially in the third movement, would give way to saccharine high strings and harp. Perhaps it was the fairy tale setting, but at times I found the piece lacking in angst.

Klaus Mäkelä, Truls Mørk and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
© Mattias Ahlm | Swedish Radio

It was clear that Mäkelä and the orchestra relished Zemlinsky's orchestral fireworks, but they didn’t seem to bring with them that same conviction into the next pieces. Ernst Bloch’s Schelomo for cello and orchestra was of a considerably more serious character. The piece forms part of Bloch’s “Jewish cycle”, and takes as its inspiration verses from Ecclesiastes, a book of the Old Testament, once believed to be written by King Solomon. Indeed, the title Schelomo is the Hebrew form of the name Solomon.

The stark darkness – at times verging on anger – of the piece worked well as a sonic antidote to the orchestral exuberance of Die Seejungfrau, but I struggled to grasp it as a whole. Cellist Truls Mørk brought his customary beauty of tone to the pained solo cello part, but I found it all too polished. Considering the source material – a book devoted to exploring the futility of life and inevitability of death – Mørk’s playing lacked rawness.

Throughout Schelomo, I wondered if the music had been rehearsed enough. There was a sense of merely going through the motions, to the detriment of cohesion. This was also true for the final piece on the programme, Debussy’s La Mer, although Mäkelä managed to tease some wonderful sounds from the orchestra. The hazy strings, shot through by trumpets and woodwinds, which open the first movement's “From dawn to midday on the sea”, shimmered beautifully. The playing waves of the second movement were gloriously colourful. However, it wasn’t until the “Dialogue of the wind and the sea” that the playing became truly exciting. Mäkelä managed to build tension and drama throughout the movement, releasing it to great effect in the final measures.

Aksel's press trip to Stockholm was funded by Swedish Radio