The curtain-raiser for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s most recent performance under the baton of Principal Guest Conductor Klaus Mäkalä was the too rarely played Konzertstück for Four Horns composed by Robert Schumann in 1849 during a period of relative serenity and great creativity in his turbulent life. Normally, the score is a vehicle meant to showcase the depth and breadth of talent among the instrumentalists in an ensemble’s horn section. The four soloists – Hans Larsson, Chris Parkes, Anna Ferriol de Ciurana, and Bengt Ny – proudly demonstrated their virtuosity in the technically difficult score. Their synchronisation was faultless, but the sound occasionally lacked brightness. Interestingly enough, the soloists, placed on a semi-elliptical extension to the stage, were not facing the empty hall but their colleagues in the orchestra, so their dialogues with the winds or trombones took on another dimension. With amazing assuredness for such a young conductor, Mäkelä brought forward the harmonic inventiveness and the unexpected lyrical character of the music, especially in the proto-Brahmsian Romanze. Striving to demonstrate the work’s thematic unity, he practically eliminated the cesurae between movements of this unusual composition that Schumann himself described as “something very curious”.

Bengt Ny, Anna Ferriol de Ciurana, Hans Larsson and Chris Parkes play Schumann
© Arne Hyckenberg

He took a similar approach to Sibelius, linking the last two symphonies. Prolonging the descent into silence marking the finale of the Sixth Symphony into the ascending steps played at unison by the strings at the beginning of the single-movement Seventh, suggested that the latter might be viewed as a fifth movement of the former. Truth be told, even if they were composed concomitantly, the two de facto fantasies (in the Lisztian sense), both “an expression of a spiritual creed”, are different in character. Lyrical and moody, the Sixth is difficult to appreciate by many first-time listeners, even those acquainted with Sibelius’ idiom. With its more obvious motifs and rhythmic patterns, condensing a whole universe into twenty minutes of music, the Seventh is easier to digest and hence often much more appealing to the public.

Klaus Mäkelä
© Arne Hyckenberg

Anchored by a medieval-sounding Dorian mode, gradually emerging from a very simple, four-descending-keys motif played in the first three bars by the second violins, Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony is not exactly the shiny vahana that young maestros prefer for displaying their exquisite technique. Mäkelä went beyond the somehow misleading four-parts structure of the work, underlining the unifying motivic material and the vagueness of key progressions. He carefully painted the myriad slowly shifting shades of grey and the ambiguous rhythmic patterns (such as the quiet, syncopated theme intoned by flutes and bassoons at the beginning of the second movement). He constantly avoided grand musical gestures, accentuating gracefulness instead. Portraying with great delicacy the courtly dialogue between strings and woodwinds that starts the last movement, Mäkelä imbued the ensuing orchestral “revolt” with early hints of its soon-to-come demise.

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
© Arne Hyckenberg

Mäkelä faced an ensemble similarly responsive to his precise demands in Sibelius’ final published symphony. Textural contrasts and fluid tempi brought variety to the overall musical landscape. The ascents towards the repeated theme heralded by the trombone (labelled "Aino" in the score’s sketches, after the composer's wife) were wonderfully calibrated. Shimmering passages, conjuring images of dancing elves, easily stood next to solemn brass chorales. Demonstrating a deep affinity for the difficult music of his compatriot and already mastering a comprehensive repertoire list, Mäkalä is a conductor whose performances should not be missed.

This performance was reviewed from the Berwaldhallen live video stream