“Today at ten to eleven, I saw 16 swans,” wrote Jean Sibelius in his diary on 21st April 1915. “One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, that beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon.” That sight was immortalised in music in the majestic swan theme on the horns in the finale of his Fifth Symphony. It’s one of Sibelius’ most recognisable motifs and it makes the Fifth his most popular symphony… so the perfect way to close Klaus Mäkelä’s outstanding Oslo Philharmonic cycle this weekend in Vienna. 

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Oslo Philharmonic
© Lukas Beck

This final concert paired the Fifth with the Third, another three-movement work but one which isn’t played as often as it should be. It is economical in style, far from the rich grandiosity of the first two symphonies and almost Classical in scale. Under terrific concertmaster Elise Båtnes, the Oslo strings set off with a bustling sense of purpose, bringing earthy energy to their playing, which resonated in the warm Konzerthaus acoustic. The violas – so often the engine-room in this symphony – whirred away vigorously. 

The joy in the Third is the middle movement, a delicate tune expressed first on the flute, is almost an intermezzo or a nocturnal waltz, but its simplicity can be deeply affecting. Left arm hanging, and barely moving his right, Mäkelä still introduced lilt and poise to this charming performance, the strings light on their toes, woodwind principals blending well in the central section. Mäkelä’s pacing of the finale, which initially draws together ideas from previous movements, was superb. He propelled the music forward until the cellos hymned their chorale-type theme, soon taken up with chest-swelling elation by the entire orchestra. The violas dug in again – it was good to see principal Catherine Bullock-Bukkøy turning to applaud her section during the ovation. 

Mäkelä took an expansive view over the opening of the Fifth’s vistas, horn calls and woodwinds suggesting a spacious sunrise, but there was a fine sense of impetus to the Allegro moderato section, essentially the Scherzo of the symphony, which built in excitement. The middle movement – another intermezzo – had a lovely flow, Mäkelä gradating the dynamics of the accompanying pizzicatos with care. 

Klaus Mäkelä and the Oslo Philharmonic
© Lukas Beck

And the swans? They soared. After the strings trembled with anticipatory excitement, the horns surged nobly, double basses clattering with percussive bow attacks. My only quibble concerned the symphony’s famous closing chords, where the timpanist played the grace notes to the last two as equal notes. Minor quibble. The impact was still tremendous, a real sense of triumph and elation.

We’ve not been short-changed with encores during this cycle and – with percussionists and tuba player joining the Konzerthaus platform for the first time in the evening – Lemminkäinen’s Return made for a rollicking closing number. The Oslo Philharmonic has a real treasure in Mäkelä and they clearly work wonderfully together. He is already in demand everywhere, so I only hope Oslo can manage to hold onto him.

Mark's press trip was funded by the Oslo Philharmonic