There are (at least) two moments in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 2 where the music extends the language taken from Haydn and Mozart and reaches out into new worlds. Both were handled to great effect by tonight’s soloist, Christian Ihle Hadland. The first is the cadenza at the end of the first movement, composed by Beethoven much later than the rest of the concerto (indeed, some years after such mighty works as the Waldstein and the Appassionata sonatas). It suddenly manhandles the concerto out of its sprightly Haydnesque urbanity, and Hadland played it without compromise. The second moment is the extended coda to the Adagio second movement, where interspersed with short phrases for hushed strings, the piano plays slow, falling repeated note arpeggios. It’s all very simple, but played well it is quite otherworldly, and so it was tonight.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra at Prom 68 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Vasily Petrenko conducts the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra at Prom 68
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The concerto received a delightful performance, full of varied colour and thoughtful phrasing from the soloist, and an alert, lively and responsive partnership provided by the orchestra. To my ears the string sound was a little thin, which wasn’t necessarily inappropriate for early Beethoven, but had some less happy implications for the Bruckner that followed. Hadland gave us a modest and beguiling encore, apparently a Galliard by William Byrd, exquisitely played.

The opening tremolo in Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony is marked to be played very, very quietly – ppp – but that doesn’t mean that it should be inaudible to 90% of the audience. There is a penchant lately in Bruckner performances to play his opening tremolos (four of his symphonies begin this way) so quiet that the only way you become aware of them is by the sight of some trembling in the arms of the violinists. The symphony begins in that silence just before the tremolo, and that was also something that was missing this evening – the lively and energetic Vasily Petrenko was too keen to get going and failed to wait for perfect silence, so even had that tremolo been played at an audible dynamic, the magic would have been undermined. The first thing most of the audience heard was the horn call, immaculately played by Inger Besserudhagen. It’s a shame, because the early-morning misty atmosphere that the tremolo provides behind the horn call can create a moment of sheer magic.

The orchestra was arranged in an imposing pyramid, with the timps gleaming at the central summit, the trumpets, trombones and tuba below, facing straight at us. Beneath them were the woodwind, and the horns off to the left. So we heard a lot of the trumpets and trombones, and they were magnificent. They played so strongly and so crisply, it was very exhilarating, and it goes without saying that the big climaxes of the outer movements – especially those great octave-drop unisons in the finale – and the climax of the Andante came over in glorious sound and were massively dramatic. But there was a weakness in the string sound (or maybe the brass was just too strong) that meant that a lot of the accompanying texture that the strings should provide was often inaudible, and this was especially unfortunate in the coda to the finale where for the most part it was only by straining my ears and staring hard at the violins I could detect their essential contribution at all. The woodwind were generally very good, though sometimes just a bit too forthright and lacking in sensitivity – I think, for example, of the flute accompaniment to the recapitulation of the opening horn call, usually a moment of sheer poetry but here a little prosaic.

That Andante was very nicely played, not too slow, and both its themes beautifully moulded, the overall shape of the movement well handled, and the hushed timpani to close were perfectly judged. With all this wonderful brass, I was particularly looking forward to the hunting Scherzo, and indeed it did sound tremendous, but Petrenko seemed more concerned to present every detail – and wonderful details they were – than allow the thing to race away with visceral excitement.

The Finale is always a challenge. Making the frequent tempo changes work, and holding the repeated, sudden loud explosions of sound within a meaningful relationship to whole, seems not to be easy. All the elements were of themselves finely played, the grand mysterious opening, the blazing climax of the first theme, the first theme of the second group taken at a melancholy, almost world-weary slowness, and then, as though to brush it out of the way, the second part taken so fast that it was hard to make out exactly what the melody was until the brass give it the full chorale treatment at half the speed in the development. Petrenko went for drama, drawing out the diminuendos, the music becoming very slow and very quiet, before the two occasions when the whole orchestra thunders in with the main theme in the development. It left the impression of a magnificently loud and brassy movement with melancholy interludes, and a symphony which didn’t quite add up to a convincing whole.

***11