Klaus Mäkelä

Seven shades of Sibelius with Klaus Mäkelä

»Then the music flows automatically« – the Finnish star conductor talks about his Sibelius cycle and what he loves so much about this music.

»Everything is cool for him!«, young people would probably say about Klaus Mäkelä. A slang phrase that seems kind of apt for the young Finn with the mischievous smile and the slightly nerdy glasses. And cool it certainly is: he studied in his home town of Helsinki – cello at first, then he concentrated on conducting. He comes from a family of musicians: his grandfather played the violin and the viola, his father is a cellist and his mother a pianist and his sister dances in the Finnish National Ballet. His conductor's career really took off at a young age: he was appointed chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in 2020, aged 24, and since the 2021/22 season he follows in the footsteps of big names like Daniel Harding, Paavo Järvi and Christoph Eschenbach as music director of the Orchestre de Paris.

Klaus Mäkelä spent the long lockdown months last spring in the recording studio together with the Oslo Philharmonic, and recorded all seven symphonies by Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). And he is now appearing in Hamburg with these classic works by Finland's national composer.

Klaus Mäkelä
Klaus Mäkelä © Philipp Seliger

Sibelius cycle in Hamburg

30 May – 1 June 2022: Klaus Mäkelä and his Oslo Philharmonic present the seven Sibelius symphonies in three concerts.

An interview with Klaus Mäkelä

Can you remember when you first consciously heard music by Sibelius?

I don't have any specific memory of this – Sibelius was simply always there. That's probably because his music is ubiquitous in Finland. He is so closely connected with our culture that in all likelihood I heard his music very early on without realising it was Sibelius. I remember very well the first time I played one of his symphonies: I was 16 at the time, and I played the cello in the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.

What role did Sibelius play for you afterwards as a conductor?

As a Finnish conductor you really can't avoid Sibelius: you are almost expected to play his music. I'm actually very grateful for that, as his work possesses immense depth. In his seven symphonies alone you find the right mood for every step or chapter in a conductor's life.

The first symphonies  are still brimming with all the passion and disappointments that a young person experiences, while at the other end of the composer's life we encounter more and more the wisdom of an elderly man, of someone who finds his way to greater clarity of expression instead of just letting his emotions flow without restraint.

Klaus Mäkelä in an interview with Barbara Lebitsch (Director of Artistic Planning at the Elbphilharmonie)

If you have Sibelius' music in your blood as a Finn, how is it for your Norwegian orchestra?

The Oslo Philharmonic is one of Scandinavia's traditional orchestras that can now look back on a hundred-year-old  history. Sibelius himself gave several concerts with the orchestra, conducting his own First Symphony, and he was followed by several Finnish chief conductors like Okko Kamu and Jukka-Pekka Saraste. That means that the Olso ensemble has built up a natural familiarity with this music. And that's important: music is a language, and as with every language you need to grasp the grammar and learn the pronunciation. Only then will you be able to express yourself properly.

What is special about Sibelius' musical language?

Well, he carried on the Late Romantic tradition formed in the main by German-speaking composers. He adopted some of its elements, but at the same time he forged his own, very individual style, chiefly in the fields of orchestration and structure. To my mind, one of his greatest strengths is his feeling for the architecture of a work, for the right proportions.

Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius © Lehtikuva / Wikimedia

Where can we hear that?

Take the Seventh Symphony, for example, which is held together by a sweeping breath, by one big arc. Yet Sibelius still manages to say everything here that Mahler expresses in his Third – he just does it in the space of 20 minutes instead of an hour and a half. Don't get me wrong – I love Mahler's music. I just want to illustrate Sibelius' mastery of condensed form.

What that something that gradually developed in his oeuvre, or was this mastery present from the outset?

The first two symphonies are much more rooted in the Late Romantic tradition: these are wonderful works, already highly original, but still traditional in character. That changes with nos. 4 and 5: here, Sibelius's mature symphonic style is in evidence. And not only as regards the form and architecture – it applies to the texture as well. In the strings in particular, we find a structure here, a kind of musical fabric that is genuinely new, and seems to make no sense at first glance. That's one of the challenges of his music, finding this very specific, floating sound. A melody can suddenly evolve from these textures, only to dissolve into structure anew. This is all part of the composer's very personal grammar that we mentioned a moment ago.

Can you give us an example of a typical Sibelius moment like that?

Each of the symphonies has its own curiosities and its own spectacular moments, particularly where the orchestration is concerned. One passage that comes to mind immediately is in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, where the string section plays one of these unmistakeable Sibelius textures. If we look at the score, we see all these tiny notes and wonder how the heck they can also sound exact together.

But that's precisely what Sibelius didn't want: he didn't intend this effect of exactness, for only through the slight shifts in the individual string parts is this unmistakeable floating sound produced that we also find in Ligeti's music. It's like in an anthill: at first glance, all the ants seem to be chaotically scurrying hither and thither, but actually each ant is following a course dictated by a higher principle. Either way, we hear a bassoon solo above this strings texture, and for me that is one of these typical original Sibelius ideas.


Concert Streams with Klaus Mäkelä

Concert streams with Klaus Mäkelä in the Elbphilharmonie Mediatheque

A typical original Sibelius idea in his Fifth Symphony


Sibelius' music was heavily influenced by the Finnish national epic »Kalevala«, on which compositions like »Kullervo« and the »Lemminkäinen-Suite« are based. Do we find this influence in the symphonies as well, or are they absolute music without any programmatic content?

There may still be influences like this in the early symphonies, although Sibelius himself didn't see them as programme music. The Second Symphony, for example, was seen in its time as a political work: the turbulent second movement is followed at the end by a heroic and optimistic finale, which contemporaries saw as a statement on the conflict between Russia and Finland, though this was not actually the composer's intention.

But later on, Sibelius was interested solely in as pure a musical expression as possible, such as he achieved in exemplary fashion in his Seventh Symphony. Here, he limits himself to minimal resources, yet still attains perfect form and harmony.

Are the circumstances of his eventful life relevant to understanding his works?

Sibelius certainly had an interesting personality: he was a very sociable person who enjoyed company and drank and smoked a lot – but at the same time he knew that he needed isolation to work. This was a conflict he always struggled with, and at times he suffered from depression. But when talking about art, it's always dangerous to try and explain it through the biography of the author.

On the other hand, there are works like the Fourth Symphony that are linked to the composer's extreme personal circumstances: at the time Sibelius had been diagnosed with a throat tumour that needed operating on, and during this period one of his daughters died. These events are reflected in the music. Karajan once said that Mahler's Sixth and Sibelius' Fourth are the only works that end in complete disaster.

Klaus Mäkelä Klaus Mäkelä © Marco Borggreve

»At the end of Sibelius' Fourth Symphony, there is nothing left to say.«

Klaus Mäkelä

Sibelius' music is often full and dark in tonality – did he have a fondness for the low registers?

This is true of the first four symphonies – they are undeniably dark-sounding, especially the Fourth, of course, with its many passages where the emphasis is on the bass line. But the general mood becomes less grave with the Fifth Symphony, where there are more and more light woodwind tones, and a kind of classical ideal in the brass parts. If we take the trombones, for instance, they stand for elemental, almost mythological power in the early symphonies, while in the later works they are much more sophisticated.

So the Fifth Symphony marks the turning point. What aspects of the music change here?

There are three versions of the Fifth, and this fact alone illustrates its special status. Sibelius composed the first version in 1915 as his personal response to modern European music. He had understood the new musical trends very well, having made an intense study of them. But it appears he was not happy with the first result of his endeavours, and a year later he rewrote the score. This, too, he was unhappy with, and in 1919 he completed the final version of the work. And his efforts bore fruit: the first version, it's true, charms the listener with its odd dissonances and idiosyncratic style, but it still has the character of a sketch.

At the end of the revision process, however, Sibelius arrives at a coherent form that adheres to an inner logic, although here too he pushes at the envelope of form and tonality. In general we can say that Sibelius's music sounds more robust and rustic at the outset of his career: in his early works he sought first and foremost to create tension. But later on his focus shifted to the flow of the music, and we can hear this change clearly in the Fifth.

Klaus Mäkelä Klaus Mäkelä © Marco Borggreve

»Thanks to this intense focus on his work, Sibelius's music became second nature to us.«

Early in 2021 you went into the studio with the Oslo Philharmonic to record the complete cycle of seven symphonies. That sounds like a pretty intense time focusing on Sibelius. How did you experience it?

Well, it was a weird situation as public life in Norway was at a complete standstill at the time. The streets were empty, while we were sitting one-and-a-half metres apart in the recording studio. The menace of the pandemic and at the same time our delight at being able to play at all produced a very special atmosphere at the recording sessions.

As concerts of any kind were banned, we had much more time than usual; we spent several weeks in the studio, and were able to concentrate exclusively on Sibelius. That wouldn't have been possible if we had been givings concerts at the same time. Thanks to this intense focus on his work, Sibelius's music became second nature to us.

What is the greatest challenge involved in a convincing Sibelius interpretation?

Deciphering the inner logic of a piece: as the conductor, I have to give the musicians the feeling that they are connected with the substance of the work, with its content. In Sibelius's case thus means a fair amount of precise work – his music doesn't come to life of its own accord. And that's good: it forces us to question the meaning of the individual parts, of every texture and gesture, in order to incorporate them in a convincing whole. If you manage that, the music flows of its own accord.

You took your first Sibelius steps on the cello: does your career on the rostrum leave you any time to play now?

I certainly try to make time: for me as a conductor, it's important to feel physically connected to the sound. After all, I expect the musicians to play things in a particular way. So if I sit in front of an instrument from time to time, I don't lose contact with this process – it grounds me. It's true that I work mainly as a conductor now, but I am still a cellist at heart.

Interview: Bjørn Woll
Translation: Clive Williams

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