Vasily Petrenko has a clever trick of taking heavyweight bits of repertoire and injecting them with air, so that they expand and float. I’ve noticed this before in performances of Rachmaninov that he’s conducted with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at Sage Gateshead. Today with his other orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic, he performed the same magic with Delius, Grieg and Sibelius.

Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Although nominally English, Delius came from a German family and travelled widely in Northern Europe. His friendship with Edward Grieg helped to foster his own composing career, so his Walk to the Paradise Garden fitted nicely with the rest of the concert programme. The Oslo Philharmonic began with a tranquil breath of winds before Petrenko gradually added layers of colour, quietly working it up to a passionate oboe solo, with the instrument lifted high, trumpet-like. This quickly died down to a calm, dreamy mood, with just the merest suggestions of excitement bubbling under the surface until a carefully controlled diminuendo at the end.

Pianist Nikolai Lugansky is another musician with a light touch in heavy repertoire, and between them, him and Petrenko banished any of the trolls that lurk in Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. After some subtle rubato and delicately spiky playing in the opening flourishes, the music settled into something surprisingly tender; it seemed at times as if Lugansky was playing chamber music. There were sudden expansions in the big statements by strings and trumpets, contrasting with world-weariness in the flutes and horns, and as in the Delius, the passion simmered below the surface rather than being overtly displayed. The piano probed all these emotions as Lugansky danced lightly across the keys, with an emphasis on the rumblings in the left-hand adding a touch of darkness before a firm ending.

The tender mood from the opening of the first movement blossomed in the second with the strings filling the hall with soft, golden sunlight, and a delicate piano line hung in the air as gentle mist, each note a clear droplet picked out in the light. Petrenko then unleashed all the orchestra’s energy, taking flight in an exciting third movement that skimmed above the earth. Strong, clear flutes in the quieter section soared up to take in the wider view, giving a clear sense of direction before the piano glided in. In some performances, the final section of this last movement is where the trolls can really take over, as the music turns to a stomping dance, but Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic kept things light and agile, before their flight ended and they coasted gently into land, with a expansive ending and a sense of having reached their destination.

Petrenko picked up this broad, expansive mood after the interval for the opening of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 5, the chorus of winds flowing gently, with just a tiny bit of springiness in the rhythm to keep things moving. Again there was always a sense of purpose; this movement went along briskly, with the timpanist providing a nice uplift on each of his beats near the end. Petrenko’s gestures were unceasingly bold here, but there were pauses to stop and admire the vast landscape that was unfolding before us, particularly in the joyful brass fanfares. The first trumpet solo was sweet and clear, and as the movement developed the brass added touches of urgency. The bassoon solo added a darker note, circling obsessively against quiet strings.

The second movement began with gorgeous legato woodwinds before breaking into neater, detached playing that returned later in a bright oboe solo, and the lightness of the strings’ pizzicato keeping the mood light and breezy. As this movement developed, however, there was just a hint here that Petrenko was over-doing the sweetness, and for a moment it seemed that the strings and brass were in danger of becoming too saccharine.

Lovely as the first two movements of this symphony are, the finale is where it all happens. The Oslo Philharmonic violins pounded into it feverishly, creating an atmosphere of tense anticipation: I actually was on the edge of my seat waiting for the horn theme to start. And when it did, Petrenko worked a magic trick, making the music expand to fill all of space and time, like one of those moments in a dream when you’re not sure whether things are happening very quickly or very slowly. The horns were creamy smooth, the flutes warm, and then the violins drew us quietly back out of the dream as they floated out their tune, and with a warm glow, the symphony rolled onwards to a leisurely end.

There were two light-hearted additions: “Morning” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt was an obvious choice, and the orchestra cheekily pushed the sentimentality to the limits of good taste. Petrenko then threw good taste right out of the window for a high camp performance of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no. 5.