In a moment of astonishing self-awareness, the female character in Eivind Buene’s radio play turned orchestral fantasia Blue mountain utters the line “All beautiful music is about death”. This is certainly an appropriate – albeit very on the nose – summary of Buene’s melodrama, where musical excerpts elicit increasingly painful memories. It also uncomfortably encapsulated the feeling of the entire concert, doom and gloom reaching even the sunniest corners of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn Songs.

Christianne Stotijn © Stephan Vanfleteren
Christianne Stotijn
© Stephan Vanfleteren

Blue Mountain was first performed in 2014 by the Danish Chamber Orchestra on their first (and last) visit to Oslo, months before the orchestra was disbanded, which added a certain funereal edge to the concert. Thankfully, the Oslo Philharmonic is under no such immediate threat of disbanding, and it was interesting to note how the piece appeared in less dire circumstances. It is a conversation set to music. During the half hour, the two main characters, a man and a woman, talk loosely about music, life and death, telling each other half-finished stories that never quite end up anywhere. Despite some initial awkwardness, actors Andrea Bræin Hovig and Mattis Herman Nyquist got through the piece mostly convincingly. The understated nature of the conversation suited both actors well. Buene, who in addition to his compositional career has three novels and an essay collection under his belt, wrote the text himself, and although it certainly has its moments, it never quite captures the ironic semi-detachment he seems to be aiming for. The explicit cleverness of the text – there is always a Proust, or at least Alban Berg, reference around the corner – jarred uncomfortably with the characters’ emotional responses to the music, most notably Mahler’s heartbreaking “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”.

Whatever the faults of his text, Buene’s music remains highly interesting. The piece begins with softly screeching flutes and repeated rhythmical figures in the strings; a dance that never quite starts. Buene creates webs of sound that play as big a part in the narrative as the actors, the music accompanying and commenting on the conversation. Often, Buene’s sonic landscapes dissolve, making way for a musical quotation, or a single melodic line, dimly appearing through the orchestral texture. While Buene successfully pulls off his playing with musical quotations, his text is not strong enough to stand alongside his music.

In the first half of the concert, a cautious glimpse into the sonic world of Blue Mountain, were Gustav Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs, a decidedly more fortuitous combination of words and music. Conductor Christian Eggen led the orchestra with almost clinical precision, excellently capturing the spirit of the songs, especially the more sardonic numbers. Sadly, the two soloists, Christianne Stotijn and Johannes Weisser did not quite follow suit.

Stotijn seemed to be having an off day. Her intonation was highly mysterious – the usually sublime “Urlicht” was flat – and her voice in the middle and top register was highly unstable and wobbly. Despite stellar clarinet playing in “Des Antonius von Paduas Fischpredigt”, Stotijn struggled to communicate the humour, much less the irony of the song, with generally muddy diction. Still, her low register proved haunting, especially in “Wo de schönen Trompeten blasen”, even though the song was taken at such a slow speed that it seemed to be standing completely still – as if Stotijn and Eggen were confusing a lack of tempo with an abundance of meaning.

Weisser, for his part, fared best in the more serious songs, seemingly more at home in the sinister world of “Revelge” than in the bright sunshine of “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?”. Weisser’s alluringly dark voice was well suited to “Der Tambourg’sell”, with haunting diminuendos blending seamlessly into the orchestra before dying away, but the seriousness carried on into the more light-hearted songs. Weisser and Stotijn sang a few of the songs as duets, and whilst the dramatics of “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm” were effective enough, the folkish charm of “Verlorne Müh’!” was all but lost. While the orchestra was on top form, with particularly excellent woodwind playing, there did not seem to be agreement between orchestra and soloists, as far as expression was concerned.