It was Joseph Joachim who introduced his friend Brahms to the Schumanns in 1853. A quarter of a century later Joachim gave the first performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, having assisted during its composition with technical details. By which time Brahms had grown quite close to Clara Schumann, widowed since 1856. Good enough reason therefore to make a connection of sorts between these two composers in this concert given by the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra. The conductor, Klaus Mäkelä, risks identification with the “Figaro qua, Figaro la, Figaro su, Figaro giu” of the barber’s famous aria: he has been popping up repeatedly in recent months conducting a variety of orchestras in different venues, both live and online.

Mischa Maisky and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra
© Lucien Grandjean

It is easy to see why he has already had such remarkable success: he’s still only 25 and is now in charge of two leading orchestras together with a major recording contract under his belt. Unlike some of his colleagues he is not an interventionist though and resists the temptation to micro-manage every bar, often letting his musicians simply play by dispensing altogether with the timekeeping and using only the left arm for expressive emphasis. There is judicious care over balance, respect for note values and allowing the music to breathe properly. The only mannerism I detected was a propensity towards inserting a decrescendo after every thematic statement. Hushed moments are fine when used sparingly, but this over-indulgence may be one of Mäkelä’s few musical sins.

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra
© Lucien Grandjean

This year’s Verbier Festival has been beset by all kinds of cancellations, programme rearrangements and last-minute changes, so it was a double pleasure to find two different concertos and soloists, albeit with the same symphony as the main work, separated by only a 30-minute intermission. In the battle of the concertos (Daniel Lozakovich playing the Brahms and Mischa Maisky the Schumann) age triumphed: Lozakovich is still only 20, whereas at 73 Maisky is a celebrated veteran. Lozakovich has been generating much excitement in certain circles and I had been looking forward to his performance. It was actually his Bach encore which showed off his talents more obviously: secure intonation, fine and graceful lines with a sweet and singing tone, expertly wrought dynamic shadings. Some of that was present in the Brahms, but far more serious was a lack of emotional engagement. I have rarely heard the cadenza towards the end of the first movement played as it was here: an academic étude in which all the notes were negotiated with aplomb but without any indication of what lies behind them.

Daniel Lozakovich and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra
© Lucien Grandjean

With a string complement of just 24 there was a notable absence of weight in the overall sound, not helped by the steady tempi. This mattered much less in the Schumann concerto, which is far more lightly scored, but it was Maisky’s identification with the composer’s inner spirit which also yielded a more involved accompaniment from Mäkelä. From the soloist’s soulful first entry and the long arching phrases that followed through to the cry of anguish at the start of the Finale, Maisky made every note tell. 

There were small but insignificant differences in detail between the two performances of Schumann’s Second Symphony. In Mäkelä’s hands it had a lightness and transparency of texture, the classical proportions underlined with “sensible” tempi, the inbuilt exuberance kept very much in check. The coda at the end should ideally blaze; here Mäkelä kept his wood-burner at a modest level. Best of all was the slow movement in which he explored the darker avenues of C minor very sensitively, aided by eloquent woodwind playing and glowing horns.



This performance was reviewed from the live stream