In Dresden: Klaus Mäkelä ultimately failed to satisfy with Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony

GermanyGermany Dresden Music Festival 2024 [1] – Bruckner: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Klaus Mäkelä (conductor). Kulturpalast, Dresden, 10.5.2024. (CC)

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra © Stephan Floss

Bruckner – Symphony No.5 (1875/76; 1878 version, ed. Leopold Nowak, Third Revised Edition, 2005)

Klaus Mäkelä’s career is in stratospheric mode. He takes over the helm of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2027 as the orchestra’s eighth Principal Conductor; he already has his hands full with Orchestre de Paris (Music Director since 2021) and the Oslo Philharmonic (Chief Conductor since 2020), and his upcoming stewardship of the Chicago Symphony from the 2027/8 season. In the concert brochure for this concert, he is listed as ‘Artistic Partner’ (with Riccardo Chailly listed as Conductor Emeritus and Iván Fischer as Honorary Guest Conductor).

This Bruckner Fifth Symphony was presented as part of a complete cycle celebrating the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth (September 4, 1824); it was also the opening concert of the Dresden Music Festival, following on from the concert performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre conducted by Kent Nagano the night before.

The acoustic of Dresden’s Kulturpalast (Culture Palace) is perfect for Bruckner: it sustains both terrifying, brass-drenched fortissimos as well as allowing clarity in the quietest pianissimos; it also has bloom, a resonance one can hear clearly in those sudden silences Bruckner so enjoys.

The opening of the Fifth came across not only as beautiful, but also as an organic flowering. No doubting that this is a Rolls Royce among orchestras, too; so far, so expected. But what was surprising was the almost dance-like gait Mäkelä brought to some passages; if this is a cathedral in sound, maybe the stained-glass windows were designed by an Impressionist.

However, the Achilles Heel of the performance emerged quickly: for all the loving attention to the moment, the bigger picture was hard to discern. The emotional range of the first movement was vast: from disarming charm through to brass walls of sound. The very opening is, here, not a characteristic Bruckner tremolo, but pizzicato low strings, above which the upper strings blossom out in the most beautiful directions. A sense of organic flowering, therefore, and that was certainly on display here; it all boded incredibly well. The brass section was perfectly balanced (good to see Katy Woolley, ex-Philharmonia, as Principal Horn, and in fine fettle). Strings, violins in particular, were incredibly together, but what was fascinating was that here was Bruckner imbued with the spirit of the dance. Textures were light, rhythms finely sprung. But – and it is a major ‘but’ – it soon became obvious the longer-range vision was lacking; the result was an emphasis on gesture. Mäkelä was, surely, linking into Bruckner’s own description of the symphony as ‘phantastisch’; but it is surely the interaction between that element and the overall structure which is so fascinating, and it is this that was missing here.

The slow movement was the first to be composed. Marked Adagio (reinforced by the indication Sehr langsam) it again begins with pizzicato strings, this time underpinning an angular yet lyrical oboe melody. That melody was a miracle here, the solo oboe the epitome of control, the legato perfect. Mäkelä’s tempo was swift, more of a Schubertian andante slow movement than an adagio; the movement was suffused with beauty, and as a performance here worked better than the first, contrasts carefully calibrated. The woodwind choir, too, acted as the perfect unit. Good to have no gap before the Scherzo, placed third in Bruckner’s scheme. Mäkelä was certainly mobile on the podium here, with lots of dance-like movements that did not seem reflected in the actual music we heard. Horns and woodwind excelled in this movement, beyond doubt, and the sudden tempo changes were expertly negotiated.

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra © Stephan Floss

The great Finale is an amalgam of sonata and fugue. Mäkelä’s ability to reveal almost X-ray levels of detail paid off here, as did his understanding of Bruckner’s use of gesture, particularly in the approach to the fugue. But again, as the music progressed, some loss of the bigger picture meant climactic points were not fully realised on an emotional level, whatever the clear excellence of the orchestra. There were some extraordinary technical moments, not least flute and oboe perfectly in unison, both in terms of pitch and in rhythm: no longer two instruments, but a line ‘painted’ with a composite colour.

A performance replete with beauty and technical excellence, then, but one that ultimately failed to satisfy. It is true that the Fifth is a transitional work, leading towards the magnificent expanses of the Seventh onwards. Yet it, too, requires a sense of breadth of hearing, of goal-oriented direction, and it was this that was perhaps that aforementioned Achilles Heel of Mäkelä’s account.

The Fifth is a problematic work, structurally – one should remember that the great Brucknerian Günter Wand did not conduct the work until he was 62 years of age. Mäkelä is 28, and there is no denying either his confidence or his bravery, and there was a palpable freshness to the reading. When he can marry that freshness to a deeper overall understanding, there will be both magic and truth; that day is not yet upon us.

Colin Clarke

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