Mäkelä and the Concertgebouw opens Musikfest Berlin with an outstanding Mahler Sixth Symphony

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2022 [1] – Saariaho, Mahler: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam / Klaus Mäkelä (conductor). Philharmonie Hall, Berlin, 28.8.2022, and livestreamed on Digital Concert Hall. (GT)

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam © Fabian Schellhorn


Mahler – Symphony No.6 in A minor

Berlin’s Musikfest attracts some of the world’s finest musicians and is a fine addition to the opening week of the new concert season at the Philharmonie. This concert introduced German audiences to the newly appointed Klaus Mäkelä as the Artistic Partner of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and this programme – the first of five that Mäkelä will conduct this season with his new orchestra – was performed just a week ago in Amsterdam.

Composed by the Finnish composer in 2002, Orion is Kaija Saariaho’s first orchestral piece, and takes the mythical god Orion and places him in an interstellar universe of fantastic sounds and imagery. Orion, the mysterious and adventurous hunter of Greek mythology, was the mortal son of Neptune (Poseidon), the god of the seas. After his death, Orion was placed by Zeus in the sky as a radiant constellation. He is, thus, at once an active (even hyperactive) human being and an immobile heavenly object, and Saariaho has fully exploited that contrast in the present work in three movements.

Orion started with the first movement, Memento Mori, on a pair of clarinets and oboes with a mysterious theme picked up by the flutes and violins while the xylophone and piano offered a sense of breathing. Then there came dissonance from harps and the brass with a babbling chatter on woodwind, organ and the entire orchestra. In the second movement, Winter Sky, we heard tubular bells and piccolo playing a rather wistful idea which was picked up by solo violin, clarinet and strings and then oboe and muted trumpet lending a gloomy idiom and yet there came a hint of expectation with calls on woodwind, trombones and long slides on the violins. This passage was rather slow-paced and then closed on a cello solo from Gregor Horsch. The third movement, Hunter, opened on the xylophone and the strings with a rhythmically exciting sequence rising to a huge climax, before an eery idiom heard on the two harps and percussion and dying away into silence.

The 26-year-old Finnish conductor Mäkelä is currently associated with orchestras in Oslo, Paris and now in Amsterdam. He is tall, has a stage presence, and is to be the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s chief conductor in 2027 becoming the eighth to hold such a title. His manner is clear and not exhibitionist, while his gestures are always precise and not excessive. It will be interesting to see his work progressing in coming seasons. If any orchestra is associated with Mahler, it is the Concertgebouw Orchestra whose great Music Director Willem Mengelberg proselytised this music when few conductors performed his symphonies, and in 1920 he was the first to inaugurate a Mahler Festival.

Mahler’s tragic Sixth Symphony’s first movement, Allegro energico, ma non troppo, opened on the strings with a great theme sounding both earth-shattering and arresting on trumpets, timpani, woodwind and brass. In the opening movement, the conductor’s tempos were slightly quicker than usual with clipped phrasing. Of the beautiful music-making in this great movement, there was notably a gorgeous solo passage from the horn of Katy Woolley. Her virtuosity and artistry were matched by the violin of Liviu Prunaru and especially from the bass clarinet of Davide Lattuada in the sequence announcing Alma’s theme. On this evening, the Andante moderato followed the first movement, rather than the Scherzo and was distinguished by more exquisite music-making in which the strings produced a quite beautiful, yet equally affectionate and charming, sequence assisted on the clarinets, cor anglais and the delightful solos from Woolley’s horn (again) and Alexei Ogrintchouk’s oboe and it all sounded heavenly. Mäkelä’s facial expressions were emotive and characterful when he cued the lonely, sad idea on the oboe.

The Scherzo (Wuchtig) began with a great passage of lively playing from strings and the woodwind – especially noteworthy was the piccolo of Vincent Cortvrint. The bitter irony of Mahler’s score was brought out by the trumpets and accentuated by solo passages from the contrabassoon and bass clarinet. The Finale: Sostenuto – Allegro moderato – Allegro energico opened with a beautiful theme on the strings and interrupted by the timpani, while the tuba of Perry Hoogendijk hinted at a threatening menace.  The Wagnerian idea on the bass clarinet by Lattuada was followed by magnificent string playing taken at the brisk tempo adopted by Mäkelä. Appropriately, the first blow from the hammer was suitably dull while the second blow on the block was both exciting and dramatic before this great tragic work came to its culmination.

This was a great opening to Musikfest Berlin 2022 – audiences may look forward to visits by the Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, Odessa and Rotterdam Philharmonics and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in repertoire embracing among others Beethoven, Mahler, Rihm, Schubert, Skoryk, Ligeti, Xenakis, Schoenberg, and Florence Price.

Gregor Tassie

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