It is rare that concerts of standard repertoire feel like much of an event, that works long established as canonical masterpieces suddenly spring out, reinvigorated and fresh, sounding like you’ve never heard them before. Yet that is what happened when Herbert Blomstedt took to the podium in the Oslo Concert House for a performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony. Everyone involved gave committed, nuanced and at times electrifyingly intense performances of familiar works, making them sound like new.

Herbert Blomstedt © J.M. Pietsch
Herbert Blomstedt
© J.M. Pietsch
The Oslo Philharmonic played the ominous C minor opening of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with hushed restraint and grace, rarely lashing out into muscular displays of pure force. The same could be said for the playing of soloist Christian Ihle Hadland, stepping in for the originally scheduled Maria João Pires. His cleanly articulated playing, especially in the first movement, highlighted the contrapuntal contours of Beethoven’s piano writing, letting each voice be heard with impressive clarity. Hadland consciously attempted to blend with the orchestra, rarely standing out as the most important part, but rather becoming an integral part of the orchestral machinery. From my seat near the stage, I had no problems hearing Hadland clearly, although I wonder how the sound travelled to the back of the cavernous hall.

The second movement was played with remarkable simplicity and warmth, a striking contrast from the fiercely dramatic first movement. In the third movement, Blomstedt and Hadland allowed themselves to let loose, finally unleashing the orchestra and piano with a sense of cheeky playfulness. While the movement was more than tempestuous enough, it never spun out of control; it was never loud for the sake of being loud. As an encore, Hadland played the wonderfully serene second movement from Mozart’s G major sonata, K283. While the playing was lovely, what I was most touched by was Blomstedt remaining onstage to listen to the encore, attentively listening over by the double basses.

The reluctance to play loudly for the sake of playing loudly, continued into Mahler’s First Symphony. Indeed, it proved something of an exploration of the lower end of the dynamic scale, with a seemingly never-ending array of shades of piano. The shimmering strings of the beginning seemed to appear from nowhere, the woodwind birdcalls – bar some initial hesitation from the oboe – followed as a natural extension of the vast sonic space outlined by the violins. As the introduction slowly metamorphosed into the gently flowing cello melody of “Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld” – Mahler quoting his own song – it again seemed a natural consequence of what had just preceded it.

The second movement was taken rather fast, perhaps a touch too fast. It had all the boot-stomping heavy-handedness of a Middle European folk dance reimagined through the lens of urban civilisation. The trio was gently lilting, imbued with a rustic elegance, quite unlike – yet clearly stemming from – the frivolity that preceded it. The funeral march of the third movement appeared as an amorphous, squirming mass, ever more instruments joining the macabre procession. Perhaps the initial oboe calls could have been more mocking; more than anything, they sounded merely curious, not different enough from the rest of the orchestra’s gloomy “Bruder Martin”. Yet there was more than enough scorn from the clarinets later in the movement.

Watching Blomstedt conduct was a masterclass in controlled gestures and limited movement, a meaningful look and a flick of the wrist were enough to herald a tidal wave of sound. It was perhaps therefore why the opening of the fourth movement came as such a surprise. The crashing opening chords appeared from out of nowhere; where there had been a seemingly natural progression, there now was disruption and violence, the orchestra for the first time firing on all cylinders. The emphasis on keeping the volume down was still there, yet there was new intensity behind it, all building up to the final, triumphant climax, standing brass section and everything.

Throughout the concert, I kept noticing that the musicians were clearly having a great time. Some were even smiling, but everyone was watching Blomstedt with eager concentration, following his every move. As he was receiving applause, he refused to take it alone, always sharing it with the orchestra, urging them to their feet whenever he came onstage. A most generous gesture by a most generous conductor.