Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider and Klaus Mäkelä revel in Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Sibelius, Shostakovich: Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider (violin), Cleveland Orchestra / Klaus Mäkelä (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 21.4.2022. (MSJ)

Klaus Mäkelä

Sibelius – Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47

Shostakovich – Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93

Make no mistake, Klaus Mäkelä is a phenomenon. The 26-year-old Finn steps quietly onto the podium, but he explodes into motion as the music moves him, and it shows every sign of moving him deeply. His confidence, his engagement and his sheer enthusiasm are inspiring, and he can communicate that sense of excitement to an orchestra. The most direct commentary I can make is to point out that on Mäkelä’s second return to the stage after a visceral performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, the orchestra refused to take a bow, stomping their feet and demanding that Mäkelä take a solo bow first. The Cleveland Orchestra doesn’t do that for just anybody. In fact, they almost never do that for anyone.

It is hard not to think of Mäkelä as a young Bernstein communing with the music. For that reason, an enormous hype has begun building up around him, and that’s a concern. Too much acclaim too soon is a poison for a probing musician with potential to grow. I have been around the classical concert world long enough to see a number of young talents fail to develop their potential. Seiji Ozawa, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, James Levine and Lorin Maazel were all once in positions of youthful acclaim. In their excitement and sheer delight in being loved by audiences everywhere, they jetted all over the globe and held multiple music directorships. They did everything. They spread themselves out. Maybe they started to believe their own hype.

Whatever the case, it stunted the growth of those conductors. As the extravagant energy of youth faded out, they had nothing with which to replace it, because they didn’t allow themselves the space to grow as human beings. They burned out, they disappointed, and they couldn’t figure out why their gestures and their love of music no longer got the exciting results as when they were young. Today, we are watching it happen again as promising talents such as Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Andris Nelsons diffuse their potential by taking on multiple music directorships and burning themselves to a crisp.

Leonard Bernstein could be a hive of activity, conducting, composing, writing. But he allowed himself the space to ponder, to think about what music means, and to think about what art means in this world. Likewise, Claudio Abbado was careful not to over-extend himself, and it allowed him, too, to grow as an artist. Cleveland’s own music director, Franz Welser-Möst, has kept to the discipline of taking one month off every year to do anything but conduct. I think it has a lot to do with how he has managed to grow profoundly as an interpreter in a business where all too many others have nothing new to say as the years go by.

I say all of this as a cautionary tale. Klaus Mäkelä has tremendous charisma and a rare ability to radiate his love for music. He throws himself into conducting, whipping his arms around in a way he won’t be able to do in twenty years. He has a tremendous range of physical movements that convey his responses to minute changes in the music, but without a strong sense of over-arching shape or what is sometimes referred to as the long line of the music. His conjuring of the second movement portrait of Joseph Stalin in the Shostakovich Tenth was so visceral, one audience member in the balcony of Mandel Concert Hall couldn’t help but shout ‘Yes!’ in the crackling pause after it finished. But the conductor also showed a youthful tendency to throw everything he had into every climax, pushing the orchestra in a way that was exhilarating but also left them without anything extra to give in the closing pages of the finale.

By comparison, Welser-Möst’s rendition of this work almost a decade ago was shaped on the large scale in a way that made it unfold in one breath as opposed to a series of events, exciting though they may be. Many of its parts were less immediately thrilling than Mäkelä’s excited examination of every detail, but the cumulative impact was more shattering. So, there is room for Mäkelä’s conception to grow. But his immediate and powerful communion with the music is astonishing, and I am sure that I would be joined by others from this audience in expressing a hope to get many opportunities in coming years to watch Mäkelä grow. Happily, he is already slated to come back next season for two weekends of concerts that will include Mahler’s Fifth.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider

Nurturing Mäkelä’s growth is such an important subject that it is the only possible reason I would relegate Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider’s towering performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto to this late in the review. He first emerged on the international concert scene in the early 1990s and was known as Nikolaj Znaider for marketing purposes. His arrival came after the peak of the compact-disc boom years, and – to be honest – I didn’t pay much attention to him: he seemed to be just another in a string of talented violinists with faultless technique.

Boy, was I wrong to overlook him! It has slowly but inexorably become clear in recent years that Szeps-Znaider is one of the major musicians of our era. Yes, he gets a rich sound from his Guarneri violin, and he has tremendous technique. But, more importantly, one senses a mind engaging with the music on a profound level. His performance of the Sibelius was mesmerizing: he managed to have both a passionate engagement with detail and a shaped, dramatic arc. No detail in the music that returned later in the structure ever sounded the same: Szeps-Znaider found small but illuminating ways to breathe life into the work, unfolding it as an intense personal drama yet, at the same time, an exhilarating piece of musical engineering.

The first movement was breathtaking, with the violinist’s rock-solid technical command anchoring the cadenza against Mäkelä’s vigorous orchestral interjections. The slow movement was meltingly vulnerable, and the finale stood as the truly terrifying danse macabre it is, not the so-called ‘polonaise for polar bears’ stupidly described by commentator Donald Francis Tovey over a century ago and plaguing the work ever since.

Szeps-Znaider has been forging a relationship with the Cleveland audience in recent years as both violinist and conductor (a role in which he will return next season in Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’). He was received with delight by an audience clearly glad to have him back post-pandemic. He returned for an encore but appeared surprised to find himself spontaneously uttering a speech about how grateful he was to be here, engaging in making music in the moment for this audience. He followed the heart-felt words with a noble performance of Bach’s Sarabande in D minor.

Mäkelä and the orchestra were as full-blooded in the Sibelius as they were in the Shostakovich. From the Shostakovich, salutes must be made to first chair soloists Nathaniel Silberschlag (horn), John Clouser (bassoon), Mary Kay Fink (piccolo), Joshua Smith (flute), Afendi Yusuf (clarinet), Frank Rosenwein (oboe), Robert Walters (English horn) and Peter Otto (violin). It was exhilarating to hear the Cleveland Orchestra in full voice in music-making that means so much to so many.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

2 thoughts on “Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider and Klaus Mäkelä revel in Cleveland”

  1. I was there. Mäkelä’s exuberance in the Shost 10 included knocking over the concertmaster’s music from the music stand, which was handled with swift grace by the affected violinists. Of all things, as the audience left the hall, we were greeted by fireworks that were part of an event at the university. Many noted, that they were an apt coda to the crackling Shostakovich still in our ears. I enjoyed to comparison of his and FW-M’s interpretations.

    Re: the principla winds: I have been listening to the orchestra for north of 50 years, and this is the finest wind section I have ever heard. Afendi Yusuf, in particular, is without equal.

  2. I was not at the concert, but want to compliment the writer for his intelligent review. Also, the Shostakovich 10th was, of course, recorded by Decca in Cleveland conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi, not long after Decca recorded it in Chicago with Solti. I think the Dohnányi recording was underrated. He kept a tight hold on the scherzo and doesn’t go for volume for its own sake. The orchestra’s sound was a bit rounder then, and perhaps the symphony needs a crisper sound, but it is still the Cleveland Orchestra. Still, there is a seriousness of purpose to the performance, and Dohnányi excels in the finale. It may not be the performance suited for today’s world given the war in Ukraine, but I return to it often.


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