Although Vasily Petrenko only gave his first concert as chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra last week, Monday’s Prom heralded this as an exciting new partnership. In a programme built around dreams and fantasy, Petrenko led the orchestra through some fantastic performances, with their Tchaikovsky especially praiseworthy.

Baiba Skride and Vasily Petrenko with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Baiba Skride and Vasily Petrenko with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Plagued by poor health and the criticisms of his former conservatoire teachers, Tchaikovsky struggled with the composition of his Symphony no. 1 (1866–68). However, he was clearly pleased with the piece, expressing the belief that it was “better than many of my other mature works” in 1883. The symphony is an attractive composition which boasts balletic grace, attractive melodies and colourful orchestration. The Oslo Philharmonic balanced the sense of fantasy suggested by the titles of the first two movements (“Dreams of a Winter Journey” and “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists”) with a more robust and powerful impulse. The woodwind sounded wonderful: the section blended well and there were some beautiful solos from section principals. Prompted by the enthusiastic lead of Elise Båtnes, the strings gave their all. They surged to powerful climaxes, reserving a blissfully tender sound for the opening of the second movement. Unfortunately, the harsh brass sound (especially that of the horns) was too obtrusive: the section jarred against the rest of the orchestra, and often fell behind the beat. This was a problem for the whole ensemble in the third movement, where the fussy articulation prevented the Scherzo from taking off. Petrenko’s enjoyment throughout the symphony was infectious, and he even began to dance in the Finale. The fugue was taken at blistering speed, although the brisk speed meant that the ensemble nearly came unstuck. However, all held together and Petrenko drove towards the jubilant coda to thrilling effect.

Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 1 was inspired by the poem Noc Majowa (“May Night”) by the Polish poet Tadeusz Miciński. The concerto captures the mysterious fantasy world of the poem, enigmatically drifting through a number of episodes, built upon two motifs. Soloist Baiba Skride gave a commanding Proms debut, projecting a meltingly gorgeous top register above the orchestra. She was in turns ethereal and fiery, and in her hands Szymanowski’s soaring melodies were instantaneously penetrating and fragile. Petrenko navigated the piece with authority, lending the piece direction and logic while preserving its elusive quality. The brass played with much more sensitivity, allowing the orchestra to capture the dream-like, hazy atmosphere. The ensemble provided a resonant cushion of sound upon which Skride could float, building veiled climaxes before subsiding back to nothing. However, the concerto was more than just misty musings: the Vivace scherzando section was earthy and resolute, and articulation was clean and crisp.

Petrenko garnered critical acclaim for his 2010 recording of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Completed in 1940, the virtuoso orchestral showpiece was the composer’s last large-scale composition. With animated rhythms, unusual combinations of tone colours and lively harmonies, the work is certainly a test of mettle. Although not flawless, the Oslo Philharmonic gave a thrilling performance of the work. The first movement was crisp and brusque, with a wistful but flowing woodwind interlude. Even though they were still on the strident side, the brass packed an impressive punch. The broad tempo for the second movement worked well, with measured oboe and cor anglais solos. With rousing brass fanfares, lively woodwind dialogue and furious string passagework, the finale was full-blooded and urgent. However, a couple of interpretational choices irritated: namely, Petrenko’s constant manipulation of the tempo in the second movement, and his overuse of accelerandos as a means of providing excitement.

The orchestra’s encore, Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt’s Velkomne med æra, seemed appropriate given the circumstances: the title of the piece loosely translates as “O be ye most heartly welcomed”. Petrenko has work to do with the Oslo Philharmonic, but such a strong concert so early on in their partnership can only be a good sign.

****1