The Oslo Philharmonic, under the baton of chief conductor Vasily Petrenko, is celebrating its new season by opening with a Beethoven festival, in which they are playing all nine of the composer’s symphonies in less than two weeks; the first time such an undertaking has occurred in the Norwegian capital. On taking my seat in the auditorium, my eyes were drawn first to the two wonderfully kitsch busts of Beethoven that had been placed upon sparkly golden boxes on either side of the stage, and then to the programme-sellers in tacky period costume. It was all rather gimmicky, especially given the music in question: Symphonies 5 and 6.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Petrenko’s short introduction to the Sixth – the orchestra played the symphonies in the order in which they were premiered in Vienna in 1808 – culminated in an instruction to “relax and enjoy”. This seemed appropriate, given the ‘Pastoral’ moniker that is applied to this piece, though the orchestra seemed not to have heard him, at least not the first word. Feelings were certainly awakened during the first movement, though they were more manic than cheerful. Perhaps the modern size of the ensemble, with full cohorts of strings, was partly to blame for the sheer wall of unrelenting sound that was to characterise this concert. Equally, Petrenko was guilty of letting them have it later on; but not in this first movement, which he conducted with grace and ease, at odds with the tumultuously intense strings that he had to quieten on several occasions.

In a similar vein, the brook of the second movement was more of a log flume, and the country folk of the third movement were boisterous instead of merely merry. That this was a rather raucous romp did not however mean that quality was compromised, particularly in the strings, who were absolutely together and wonderfully balanced, at least with each other: there was a particularly fine moment at the beginning of the second movement with cellos and violas babbling in sweet harmony above some bass splashes. Birdcalls in the woodwind were elegantly executed and comprised one of the rare moments of the piece where I truly relaxed and enjoyed.

There was no time to batten down the hatches before an immense storm lashed the auditorium in the fourth movement. Here, the volume and intensity matched Beethoven’s writing, with upper strings, brass and timpani beating down like driving rain while lower strings thundered and crashed: their rumbles as the storm receded were truly menacing. A change of dynamic would have been welcome at points in the fifth movement, but it was almost uniformly loud, with hardly any concession for the rare quieter moments where the winds were finally allowed to come through.

We were treated to more of the same after the interval. That ominous four-note motif that begins the Fifth would have been more dramatic had the majority of what had come before not been at such a terrific volume. Petrenko whipped up the orchestra from the word go: the strings were charged with electricity and sawing into their instruments for a distinctly Shostakovich-esque effect – Beethoven was getting the Petrenko treatment! Exciting and energetic though this was, the winds did not match up, with some curiously fluffy horn playing and a lacklustre flute. Serene and considered oboe playing in the second movement especially made up for these disappointments.

The huge swell into the last movement had little impact after a thoroughly deafening third movement. It was frankly amazing that the orchestra was still playing with such energy, given how much the players had put into the rest of the concert. Petrenko was quivering with the exertion of it all as they screamed towards home, with some impressively tight string playing that on occasion needed calming; violins and violas overpowered even the brass, whose attempts at soaring over from the back were valiant but in vain.

I have left concert halls with ears ringing after Scriabin and Shostakovich, but never after Beethoven. Generally, the orchestra played well, but it was too loud and too fraught, and thus rather an exhausting listen. Pared-down strings and a better insistence from Petrenko on dynamics under a mezzo-forte and greater variation of expression would have rendered this a much more convincing performance. 

**111