Two weeks before celebrating its centenary with a grand celebration in Norway, the Oslo Philharmonic was invited to perform in Bucharest as part of the Enescu Festival. The ensemble, led by its Principal Conductor, Vasily Petrenko, dispelled any doubts about its two performances being included in a so-labelled “Great Orchestras of the World” series. As far as the Friday evening’s concert is concerned, the Oslo Philharmonic proved to be a first-class orchestra indeed.

Leif Ove Andsnes
© Cătălina Filip

For many spectators, the main attraction on the programme was attending a performance of Leif Ove Andsnes in one of his signature calling cards, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, albeit one to which he's only recently returned. Those expecting to get a virtuosic display of pyrotechnics got something totally different. Andsnes’ rendition was a typical battle between Dionysian and Apollonian, won by the latter. In his vision, this Romantic opus par excellence had much more than just a Classical veneer. Grimaces and grandiloquent gestures were totally absent, so were any signs that the pianist was ready to wear his heart on the sleeve. All the agitated turbulences, rendered with irreproachable technical accuracy, were wrapped in a stately atmosphere of calm. Tempo switches lacked Schumannesque abruptness. Arpeggios were imbued with great refinement and delicacy, crescendos were constructed with the greatest of calms. Dialogues with individual members of the orchestra – cello, winds – were also devoid of any showiness (the “conversation” with principal horn Inger Besserudhagen was especially rewarding). Even the final octaves sounded far less ostentatious and pompous as they might have done in different hands. Andsnes offered a single encore – Grieg’s Lyric Piece Op.54, no.2 “Norwegian March – taking a quite similar approach to the composer’s solo music as the one he displayed during the concerto.

Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
© Cătălina Filip

Andsnes never overemphasised the folkloric vein running through Grieg’s magnum opus. Neither did Petrenko in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Hungarian folk music, with its particular rhythms and intervals, plays a huge role in defining most of Bartók’s works. Unfortunately, rendering the composer’s idiom, so close to the inflections of spoken Hungarian, can only be mastered by few orchestras and maestros. Many characteristic syncopations didn’t have sharp enough edges here. Neither were contrasts between phrases sufficiently defined, but the overall compositional arch was beautifully shaped. There were many remarkable moments, from the fugato sequences in the Introduzione to the later percussion and brass dialogue, to the perpetuum mobile in the Finale. Under Petrenko’s baton, the wonderfully colourful and sophisticated orchestration sounded closer to the music Bartók composed at the beginning of his career, when Debussy’s influence was rather significant. At the end of the “Game of Pairs” and at the beginning of the following Elegia, the musical tapestry had an especially Debussian quality. Bartók’s composition is also a showcase for the individual instrumentalists’ prowess and most of their interventions were of the highest quality, demonstrating how much this ensemble, brought to the forefront by Mariss Jansons four decades ago, really grew in recent years.

A new composition by the Norwegian composer Øyvind Torvund's was the performance’s preamble. Morgon i skogen (Forest Morning) is a brief tone poem that pays homage to the beauty of wooded landscapes, also evoking the modern world’s interference into the forest’s life. In an initially indistinguishable mixture of natural and electronic sounds, one can hear chirping birds and leaves blowing in the wind, but also vehicle traffic reverberations. The menace that “civilisation” represents vis-à-vis nature might also have been hinted at in this interesting soundscape featuring such instruments as harp and xylophone in prominent roles.