Prom 35: Oslo Philharmonic – Klaus Mäkelä conducts Strauss & Sibelius – Yuja Wang plays Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1

Tapiola, Op.112
Piano Concerto No.1 in E-flat
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Yuja Wang (piano)

Oslo Philharmonic
Klaus Mäkelä

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 12 August, 2022
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For his first Proms appearance, at the helm of the Oslo Philharmonic, Klaus Mäkelä prefaced two great feats or depictions of musical heroism with his fellow countryman Sibelius’s final tone poem, Tapiola (1926) – a fearful evocation or even conjuring in sound of the vast Finnish landscape of dark forests and their presiding god, Tapio, without any reference to human activity or narrative. An ominous and brisk opening with the work’s signature motif made for a propitious start. But after the violent first climax came some pauses which, though pregnant, dissipated the drama somewhat, resulting in a more episodic and perhaps wayward account of the piece.

Despite conductor and orchestra sustaining a compellingly brooding character throughout, a more unified, overarching trajectory was missing, however atmospheric those individual sections were (for instance the dreamy, delirious repetitions of the main motif after that first climax, or the bedazzling torrent of the maddening crescendo of quavers from the strings (violins distributed antiphonally) near the end as though a cataclysmic snowstorm). Certainly that captured the score’s more cyclical nature, arguably Sibelius’s finest achievement in the genre of the tone poem which in this case came round full circle with his increasingly terse vision of the symphony, gradually eschewing linear thematic development, as he achieved with his contemporaneous Seventh. Indeed the final major chord of Tapiola here registered enigmatically as the last expression of the magnificent, spontaneous mystery that is nature, rather than as a logical resolution or cathartic outcome of all that had gone before.

Although outwardly more conventional in form as a Concerto, Liszt’s first essay in the genre (completed 1856) was, in fact, also unorthodox in its time for its cyclical arrangement across four more or less continuous sections. Yuja Wang maintained a firm grip of its whimsically disparate passages, making the sudden lurches from heroic virtuosity to inward, tender love song, and back again sound perfectly natural and organic. Her energetic and vigorous opening passages tamed the orchestra before giving way to her wondrously delicate manner with the Quasi adagio in dialogue with the barest of wisps in the clarinet’s interjections. Notwithstanding the other well-played instrumental solos from the OP and an emphatic, triumphal conclusion, the performance overall was a touch disjointed and directionless. Though that has as much to do with the start-stop nature of Liszt’s orchestration of the work that generally leaves the pianist alone in the spotlight, which Wang held not with empty showiness but clear purpose and consummate musicianship.

She demonstrated that again in two contrasting encores – first the frenetic dash of Horowitz’s Carmen Variations, the cascade of notes tempered intelligently to the harmonies and rhythms of Bizet’s ‘Chanson bohème’ from that opera; and then a hypnotic account of Giovanni Sgambati’s arrangement of the central section of Gluck’s ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ from Orfeo ed Euridice.

Mäkelä gave a personable account of one of Strauss’s most ambitious tone poems, Ein Heldenleben. The fairly leisurely but confident start heralded an interpretation that was not overblown, but coursed along with a sense of joy and humour. The first section, portraying the Hero (really Strauss himself) reached a chirpy climax, before yielding to a piquant characterisation of his enemies, the music critics. The Hero’s sorrow at their opposition and yearning for a companion – here translucent but Tristan-like in its fervour – was met with a rather matter-of-fact violin solo from Elise Båtnes but led to an efflorescence of orchestral sonority for their romance.

The force of the Hero’s battle with his adversaries was expressed mainly through the blistering brittleness of the OP’s brass rather than a full-on assault by the whole orchestra, but Mäkelä secured repose and contentment as the Hero surveyed his works (cue steady, deliberate iterations of themes from Strauss’s earlier works) then a quiet retirement and fulfilment to conclude this musical autobiography. If this wasn’t a particularly grand, sweeping account of the work, it was alert and colourful, the OP often sounding more lithe and agile than their considerable numbers might suggest.

They maintained infectious high spirits for the rollicking ‘Csardas’ from Johann Strauss’s opera Ritter Pázmán, unsurprisingly inciting some in the audience to sway or bob in time with the boisterousness close after its lumbering start.

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