But the memory of it was quickly swept aside by the Shostakovich that followed — in particular the similarly grand, breakneck finale. There, you could hear what was lacking in “Perú Negro”: ambiguous exuberance, Janus-faced passages that misdirect and provoke, both inviting and impenetrable, forever irreconcilable. López Bellido could take a lesson from that, as someone who clearly knows how an orchestra can sound, but not necessarily what it can say.
The Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky symphonies were studies in letting a score speak for itself. Whether that works is largely a matter of taste, and ensemble. I heard a similar touch in a Mahler Four that Mäkelä conducted last year in Munich; there, the cool performance didn’t deliver on the symphony’s heavenly climax. But his Mahler Six in Amsterdam this summer was a revelation of terror directly expressed.
At the Philharmonic, Mäkelä kept some of the orchestra’s characteristic imbalances in check — such as the outsize sounds that rendered the winds section virtually invisible in the Beethoven Nine led by van Zweden in October — but hadn’t quite rewired the players. He did, though, manage to lend both symphonies a legible, compelling shape, if at a bit of a remove. The most evocative moments came not from the entire group but from soloists: Frank Huang’s violin fleetly galloping in the Shostakovich; Judith LeClair’s bassoon dolefully opening the Tchaikovsky; and Anthony McGill’s clarinet reprising that work’s second theme with rending sweetness.
The third movement of the Tchaikovsky, a perennial audience favorite, especially benefited from Mäkelä’s lucid reading, whose transparency brought equal attention to the itinerant melodic line and the dense orchestrations surrounding it. There was a sense of what the composer might have been thinking when he wrote to his publisher, Pyotr Jurgenson, that he was “happy in the knowledge that I have written a good piece.”
I found myself, though, wanting to know more than how Tchaikovsky viewed his own music. Mäkelä’s conducting was so deferential to the score, it was tempting to shake him and ask, “But what do you really think?” Classics like this symphony warrant not just recitation, but also repeated examination.
Then again, it’s helpful to remember that we are talking about a 26-year-old. Who hasn’t changed drastically throughout their 20s — in life, in work, in worldview? It will be interesting, and worthwhile, to see where that growth takes Mäkelä. He has proved that he can wrangle the war horses. Now it’s time to see what else he can do.
New York Philharmonic
Performed on Friday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan.