After masterful Sibelius, Oslo Phil’s Shostakovich and Yuja Wang’s Ravel in the best Usher Hall concert so far

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2023 [16] – Gupta, Sibelius, Mahler: Johanna Wallroth (soprano), Oslo Philharmonic / Klaus Mäkelä (conductor). Usher Hall, 21.8.2023. (SRT)

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Oslo Philharmonic at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh © Andrew Perry

Rolf Gupta – Epilogue from Earth’s Song
Sibelius – Symphony No.7
Mahler – Symphony No.4

Visiting orchestras form a huge part of the appeal of the Edinburgh International Festival’s music programme – the EIF has already hosted the Budapest Festival Orchestra (click here) and the London Symphony Orchestra (click here) this year – but there is something a little special about this final week because it features two high profile ensembles that aren’t going to the BBC Proms. On Thursday the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela arrive in town, and Monday night began a two-night residency from the Oslo Philharmonic.

The Oslo Phil have visited the EIF many times before, but this is their first time with their wunderkind conductor Klaus Mäkelä. I hadn’t encountered him in the flesh before but, if this concert is anything to go by, then the hype is justified. His youth is utterly remarkable, but not just because of his slender years; it is because he conducts with authority and insight that suggests he has been doing this for decades. His shaping of Sibelius’s Symphony No.7, for example, was masterful. This single-span work poses problems for even the most experienced conductors, but Mäkelä’s solutions to its problems all worked, and did so triumphantly.

He coaxed the symphony out of its primordial state with the skill of a navigator who doesn’t need a roadmap, and the orchestral texture he shaped balanced the dark base of cellos and basses against wonderfully rich violins and violas, and all the while the winds rippled cherubically above them. The strings seemed to be searching for the fulfilment of the trombone theme, which rang out like sunlight piercing a cloud, and in the later central sections a surprising spirit of the dance seemed to take over the piece. This music lunged, pirouetted, spiralled and swooped by turns, but it always moved forwards in a way that made sense, Sibelius’s lines blurring and speeding up with organic fluidity. Mäkelä’s command of it was complete, and often very exciting.

Excitement wasn’t the keynote of his Mahler 4, but it was every bit as individually shaped so as to make it sound wonderfully exciting and fresh. His take on the first movement was playful and breezy, shaping every phrase so that no repeat ever sounded the same, with soft, lovely strings that had just the right hint of schmaltz. There was a mischievous chuckle to the Scherzo, with buzzy winds that weren’t afraid to make an ugly sound when required, and in the slow movement the violins and violas made a sound to die for, partly because it was so rich but also because they retained enough transparency and openness to give it a hint of fresh air. Johanna Wallroth’s soprano was sweet, if a little underwhelming, but it was all of a piece with Mäkelä’s vision, and there was never any danger of her stealing the show.

And the novelty? Let’s just say that the final part of Rolf Gupta’s Earth’s Song didn’t fill me with a longing to hear the whole thing. It is basically one HUGE crescendo and decrescendo that was most interesting at its two extremes. It began and ended with playing that was perhaps quieter than I have ever heard from any orchestra, and at its height the trombones and tubas were blaring out those impossibly difficult bottom notes with remarkable skill. Any piece that features four bass drums leaves you in no doubt about its intentions, and Gupta coloured it interestingly enough. However, it is effectively one 15-minute-long chord and, no matter how beautifully it was played, there is only so much excitement that can generate.

Edinburgh International Festival 2023 [17] – Ravel, Shostakovich:, Yuja Wang (piano), Oslo Philharmonic / Klaus Mäkelä (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.8.2023.

Yuja Wang and Klaus Mäkelä at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh © Andrew Perry

Ravel – Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; Piano Concerto in G
Shostakovich -Symphony No.5

Whatever they are giving to those string players in Oslo, they should try and make it more widely available, because orchestras all over the world would kill for a string sound like the Oslo Philharmonic managed in this performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5. It was both the foundation stone and the life-blood of perhaps the finest performance of this piece I have heard. The opening was full of clipped and precise unisons, a trick they repeated at the start of the Scherzo, and then the violin tone was so ripe with emotion that it moved even a dark-hearted cynic like me. If that is how the first movement hit me then the third left me shaken, and that is before we get to the winds who cocked the cheekiest of snooks throughout, with bassoons blowing low raspberries whenever they could.

Conductor Klaus Mäkelä shaped the great arches of the outer movements with subtlety and an uncanny sense of dramatic tension, leading into a finale whose opening was so fast and exciting that it felt like it was hanging on by its fingernails. The final pages then were taken slowly enough to make them sound majestic but with enough pace to undermine the triumphalism. It is almost as though Mäkelä was intentionally avoiding taking a position on the controversial ending but, rather than falling between two stools, he conveyed the best of both meanings.

But there could be little doubt as to who the main draw really was in this programme, and why the Usher Hall had sold considerably more tickets than for the previous night’s concert. Superstar pianist Yuja Wang, Mäkelä’s partner in life as well as in music, had swept into town to play both of the Ravel concertos, which would be luxury programming on any concert, but with such a star team on the stage it was dynamite.

Like Mäkelä, Wang is worth the hype. She cuts a flamboyant figure on the stage, but she is a deeply serious musician, inhabiting every aspect of these two very different concertos with extremely impressive insight and skill. In the Left Hand concerto, she made the most of the tension that Ravel writes into the part, bounding up and down the keyboard so as to milk every ounce of drama from the line, but creating something that was always interesting and often gripping. Wang managed moments of great delicacy in her cadenza, ranging from cloudy subterranean rumblings to cantabile phrasing at the top, and the interplay with the orchestra was always extremely well observed, making sure that this was never just The Yuja Show.

Maybe because she was free to use both her hands, Wang sounded happier in the G major concerto, more playful and freewheeling, and this rubbed off on the orchestra, too, with terrific wind solos and a gorgeous, jazzy slouch to the music. Melodies both on the keyboard and in the orchestra were gorgeously spun out, both at speed in the outer movements and with beauteous delicacy in the slow movement, and together they built up a terrific head of steam as they hurtled towards the final snarl of the ending.

This was a proper treat, the Usher Hall event that I have enjoyed the most this year (so far); a top international orchestra playing at their best, with a superstar conductor and pianist who fully justified their hype. In short, it is exactly the sort of thing the Edinburgh International Festival should be doing. More, please!

Simon Thompson

Both Oslo Philharmonic concerts were recorded for later broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs at venues across the city until Sunday 27th August click here for details.

1 thought on “After masterful Sibelius, Oslo Phil’s Shostakovich and Yuja Wang’s Ravel in the best Usher Hall concert so far”

  1. You are absolutely right. We were at the Usher Hall last night in my top 2 of concerts I have ever had the pleasure to attend. Truly a performance to remember for a very long time.


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