thu 25/07/2024

Prom 35, Wang, Oslo Philharmonic, Mäkelä review - crystalline fantasy and levitational brilliance | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 35, Wang, Oslo Philharmonic, Mäkelä review - crystalline fantasy and levitational brilliance

Prom 35, Wang, Oslo Philharmonic, Mäkelä review - crystalline fantasy and levitational brilliance

Sibelius goes deepest, but airborne entertainment elevates Liszt and RIchard Strauss

Klaus Mäkelä and the Oslo Philharmonic: high, lucid and brightAll images by Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Klaus Mäkelä, 26-year old chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris, lined up for the same role at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2027, knows exactly where he’s going: a crucial asset in the idiosyncratic ebb and flow of orchestral oddities by Sibelius and Strauss. So, too, does pianist Yuja Wang; boundless imagination matched to phenomenal technique made something far more fascinating than usual of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto.

If you dwell too much on the age of one – yes, I mentioned it just the once – or the fashion sense of the other – she can wear whatever she damned well pleases – that’s your problem: both are already among the world’s great musicians. I’d also hazard that superlative for the collective brilliance and suppleness of the Oslo Philharmonic. True, it was one thing to be poleaxed at much closer quarters by their Bartók Miraculous Mandarin Suite in their home city and Sibelius 5 at the Barbican, another to decode every profile from near the back of the Royal Albert Hall. But Mäkelä’s high, lucid and bright conducting style, a joy to watch, found its response in every line from those remarkable strings, every brass ensemble and woodwind solo. Klaus Makela conductsOf the three works on the official programme, the most profound was unquestionably Sibelius’s late meditation on the mythic brooding of Finland’s forests, Tapiola, which also comes across as another dark night of the soul (it’s never either/or with this genius). Mäkelä made multi-dimensional work of the extraordinary textures, but even more remarkable was his totally organic fluctuation between hypnotic stasis and spectral dancing; it made me think more than ever that this is a companion piece to Debussy’s late mystery Jeux, which was actually designated as a ballet (Sibelius’s experience in the genre came over a decade before Tapiola in the “pantomime-tragedy” Scaramouche, a work we need to hear in its entirety at the Proms). The storm just before the end rose from near-nothingness to fearsome heights; the final chord which breathes major-key peace at last could hardly have been richer or more resonant.

Though Liszt has his moments with orchestral solos in the concerto, gleamingly taken by the Oslo Philharmonic wind and cello principals, the magic is nearly all in the piano writing (famously there's a triangle part which should reverberate in a pause, but couldn't be heard from my seat for the first minute of its role).. Transcendentalism took on a new meaning in Wang’s hands; one plunge from a dizzying trill seemed positively supernatural. Yes, she can fire fiercely in double octaves, but it was the making-fresh, the improvisational feel, of what thematic riches there are in this compact concerto. Even playing on the verge of silence drew us in from far away thanks to the crystalline clarity of the rarest, most precious piano sound. What in fellow pianist Khatia Buniatishvili is so often mannered and eccentric-grotesque made total if surprising sense here; and it says so much for Wang’s place among the half-dozen top league players that when Argerich and Barenboim performed this work at the Proms, the aftermath left an “is that all there is?” feeling. This was mesmeric at every turn; Mäkelä and his orchestra kept tabs with equal subtlety and freedom. Yuja Wang at the PromsThe encores scintillated too: pure virtuoso high jinks and sleight-of-hand(s) in the "Danse Bohème" from Bizet's Carmen as elaborated by Horowitz, perfectly balanced by reflection that drew you ever more closely in to the centre in that soul-piercing part of Gluck's "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" he added after the first performances of Orfeo ed Euridice (purist productions which stick to  the 1762 original  miss perhaps the most other-worldy part of the entire score), No amount of extra notes added in Sgambati's transcription got in the way of the essence, proving again that Wang is no mere virtuoso but an imaginative artist of the highest order,

If Wang worked wonders on a concerto warhorse, I was hoping to love Strauss's Ein Heldenleben more in the hands of flaming youth (it's my least favourite of the symphonic poems other than Macbeth, at least until the Hero's Homecoming). Even Mäkelä and the Oslo Phil couldn't do that for me, but this could hardly have been a classier sweep through the mock-epic world of the composer as hero, moving forward but never over-urged, gauzes placed magically over the post-coital repose between love scene and battle as well as the early stages in the review of the Works of Peace - self-quotations in the loveliest tapestry possible, all clear in this interpretation - and the hero's withdrawal from the world. I can't agree with my colleague Graham Rickson, who writes in today's reviews column that "the work’s second half can drag"; it's precisely here, surely, that our hero wins the laurels he hasn't up to that point really deserved, and Mäkelä elevated the celebration of enemy-critics routed with more high style. Oslo Phil PromEven so, we'd had all the movement we needed in the peculiar early stages, above all from leader Elise Båtnes' tough and note-perfect portrait of the feisty companion.. She contributed to the elevation of the final stages with a tender presence more remarkable than any I've heard before. Båtnes, incidentally, is just as fine in the orchestra's recording of the work with previous chief conductor Vasily Petrenko, part of an excellent Strauss series. Petrenko was in the audience (full house, pictured above) to see his old friends; lucky (or rather discriminating) orchestra to keep on soaring with its music directors - dare I say it to even greater heights under Mäkelä. The encore, Johann Strauss II's Csárdás from Ritter Pázmán, showcased string fire and the conductor's easy flexibility. If there's a flaw in this marvellous team I haven't encountered it yet.


New to Sibelius’ Tapiola I thought it was absolutely superb and this conductor clearly has a quite extraordinary ability. To communicate a piece like this, that many in the audience would not know is just phenomenal. Very disappointed with the Liszt - it was certainly an inventive take by the pianist Wang but it contained unmusical changes in tempos and a lack of clarity and tone in key parts, which were combined with a tepid character in the songlike solo passages. I don’t think Liszt would have enjoyed that.

While it's strictly true that Huja Wang can wear what she likes it's pretty rare in the classical world that a soloist does just that defying what is such a styfuling convention. Why do so many musicians still. appear in late 19thc evening dress. It's changing esp. in the chamber music world. Huja Wang's choice of apparel was wonderfully in conventional. Let's be honest. She's very attractive and brilliant and can get away with it but even so it helps to upset outdated conventions.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters