“Vienna is all laughter and waltzes,” wrote Jean Sibelius to his family during his year studying there in 1890-91. He partied hard, drinking and gambling so much that he applied for a position as violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic to improve his financial predicament. Suffering from nerves at the audition, his attempt failed. While in Vienna, he studied with Karl Goldmark and began work on what he envisaged as his first symphony (the Overture in E major). 

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Oslo Philharmonic
© Kaupo Kikkas (Paris Philharmonie, May 2022)

But Sibelius’ First Symphony proper would have to wait, premiered in Helsinki in 1899. Another six followed over the next 25 years to form one of the most original symphonic cycles of the 20th century, each distinctly different from the others. Scores of Finnish conductors have championed their greatest composer, the latest of whom is the youthful – he’s still only 26 – Klaus Mäkelä, bringing the Oslo Philharmonic on tour to the Wiener Konzerthaus for a cycle over three consecutive evenings. 

It is fascinating to hear the seven in such a concentrated span, but we’re not hearing them in chronological order. Mäkelä opened, naturally enough, with the First but then jump-cut after the interval to the Sixth and Seventh. This really magnified the way Sibelius’ symphonic writing developed in the intervening 24 years. The First opens with a bardic narration by the solo clarinet – woody toned and richly projected here – but pays a huge debt to Tchaikovsky in its warm lyricism. By the Sixth, a craggy beast where mountain springs plunge onto granite, the musical language is sparer, the orchestration less dense, while the Seventh is even terser still, written in a single 22-minute movement. 

Mäkelä’s style is very elegant, very contained. Big gestures only arrive at natural climaxes; there’s nothing for show. At times, he uses his hands instead of a baton; at others he barely seems to conduct at all. But he listens. What was immediately clear from hearing this orchestra in such a fabulous acoustic as the Konzerthaus is just how well Mäkelä balances the sound (their recent Decca recording features some pretty intense spotlighting, not always welcome). The strings, with their gorgeous sheen, never swamped the woodwinds, the brass never blitzed (the horns were not on risers, but nestled behind the second violins), the timpani punctured the texture nicely, especially the playful motif in the First’s Scherzo. 

Klaus Mäkelä and the Oslo Philharmonic
© Kaupo Kikkas (Paris Philharmonie, May 2022)

There were a few instances of unusual tempi. By slamming on the brakes just before the poco a poco più stretto e crescendo markings in the First’s opening movement, it heightened the acceleration in an artificial way. Similarly the slowing down in the symphony’s final pages (Sibelius only asks for poco a poco – little by little) felt heavy-handed. But the last notes, pizzicato strings – first mezzo-forte, then piano – really felt questioning. A sense of unfinished business. 

The Sixth received a very fine performance, timpani volleys exciting in the third movement and the finale really pulsating, Mäkelä handling the transitions deftly before the strings drifted off into nothing. Where Mäkelä’s attention to detail occasionally threatened to lose sight of the wood for the trees earlier, the Seventh found him with a crystal clear vision of its architectural structure. The music seemed to grow organically in one great arch as it swept towards the least triumphant C major ending to a symphony I can think of, grief-stricken, almost painful. More unfinished business. 

In the Seventh’s closing pages, there’s a chord progression taken straight from his Valse triste, providing Mäkelä and his Oslo players with a ready-made encore, swelling from muted sadness to impassioned doom to close an impressive first evening.

Mark's press trip was funded by the Oslo Philharmonic