Classical Music Album Review: Klaus Mäkelä conducts Stravinsky
By Jonathan Blumhofer
While one is willing to grant a 27-year-old conductor some benefit of the doubt, there’s little here to suggest that the Great Nordic Hope of Classical Music isn’t simply out of his depth.
For Charles Ives, the adjective “nice” was often a dismissive, damning epithet. So when I say that Klaus Mäkelä’s new recording of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird and The Rite of Spring is a “nice” one, I’m using the term in the Ivesian sense.
To be sure there are genuinely admirable qualities to be had in the playing of the Orchestre de Paris, of which Mäkelä is currently music director. The recording’s lean textures reveal a host of instrumental details (especially from the woodwinds) that are expertly and warmly rendered. Tempos, generally, don’t flag.
And yet both works suffer from a lack of tension, focus, energy, excitement – just the characteristics one imagines couldn’t be divorced from these scores in the first place. Until Mäkelä got his hands on them, that is. While one is willing to grant a 27-year-old conductor some benefit of the doubt, there’s little here to suggest that the Great Nordic Hope of Classical Music isn’t simply out of his depth.
His take on Rite is, quite possibly, the dullest on offer from a major label. Phrasings throughout are rigid. The level of musical violence is anemic (if you thought “Augurs of Spring” could never lack vehemence, just wait until you hear Mäkelä’s utterly tepid take on it).
Sure, the music’s lyricism comes out well. But underlining songfulness in, say, Part 2’s “Ritual of the Ancestors” hardly excuses a stultifying introduction to Part 1, passionless “Ritual of Abduction,” slouching “Procession of Elders,” vapid “Selection of the Chosen One,” and lethargic “Sacrificial Dance.” Though Mäkelä and Friends might try to persuade listeners otherwise, rhythmic energy and euphony aren’t mutually exclusive (as Stravinsky’s own recording of this ballet attests – not to mention at least a dozen others from better conductors).
Likewise dreary and literal is Mäkelä’s take on The Firebird. Again, individual components – woodwind textures, string playing (the introduction’s natural-harmonic arpeggios are winningly warm) – periodically stand out. Yet the larger work comes over as a series of bland events, not a dynamic, cohesive whole.
What’s more, the score doesn’t once pack any of the thrills, mystery, or sense of discovery that its best (let alone better) recordings do. This isn’t just an issue of age: Esa-Pekka Salonen’s first recording of Firebird was released when he was just thirty – and that 1989 disc has aged extremely well.
Rather, what we’ve got here is a question of interpretive vision and conductorial chops. Yes, some set pieces (like the lithe “Dance of the Firebird” and the winsome “Khovorod”) adequately hold their own. Yet the score’s connective tissue slogs, as do too many of its bigger spots: “The Firebird’s Supplications,” for instance, progressively loses focus as it unfolds. And the less time spent on the sequence leading up to the “Infernal Dance,” the better.
Not once in all of this does Mäkelä exhibit a firm grasp of either the music’s sense of style or a command of the score’s architecture. Instead, the whole production rambles tediously along, at the end of which one is hard-pressed to appreciate Firebird’s standing as one of the 20th century’s engaging, ground-breaking masterworks.
That’s quite the accomplishment and a big step down from last year’s mixed bag of Sibelius symphonies from Mäkelä and the Oslo Philharmonic. True, that release had its misfires – but also moments of real charisma and direction. This Stravinsky? Amazingly, none at all.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.