Starting the role of principal conductor of a new orchestra may be compared to trying out a new car. There is of course the initial thrill of the novelty of it all, testing the performance of the vehicle; how quickly it can accelerate, how smooth are the transitions from one speed to another. However, that one is utterly confident and familiar with its performance within the first week is only to be expected. Russian-born Vasily Petrenko took over his role as the Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra only last week. And it has been a remarkably busy week too, with a plethora of international engagements already; an opening gala concert in Oslo on Thursday last, performances at the Proms in London on Monday and Tuesday, and tonight at the National Concert Hall, Dublin. In a programme based entirely on the Northern European romantic repertoire (Sibelius, Grieg and Tchaikovsky), Petrenko led the orchestra on an exciting if not always smooth musical journey, signifying a potentially fruitful collaboration. Tonight, Petrenko was joined for the concerto performance by Norwegian pianist Christian Ihle Hadland.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Sibelius wrote Finlandia at a time when Finland was under Russian rule and despite an initial poor reception, it went on to achieve remarkable success, becoming an iconic hymn to liberty. The ominous opening on the brass was marred by some tuning issues, a problem that the flutes suffered from later on as well. Nonetheless, the sound was fulsome from the strings and in the hymn-like sections the sense of wistfulness was well evoked. Interestingly, there is a large gap between Petrenko’s beat and the orchestral sound meaning that sudden dynamic and tempi changes were highlighted well in advance for the audience too.

The highlight of tonight’s concert for me was Hadland’s novel interpretation of Grieg’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in A minor. It is a standard work in the piano repertoire containing beautiful Norwegian melodies, shifting harmonies and large amounts of bravura. While he carried off the virtuosic passages with aplomb, Hadland seemed keen to downplay such technical displays, opting rather to emphasise the lyricism of the melodies and the dialogue with the orchestra. With his large frame hunched over the piano in the opening octaves, he was the epitome of how not to sit at the piano according to piano teachers. Yet, any aspiring pianist who could produce a sound as warm and as rich as his, would certainly be excused as to his or her posture. His articulation of the triplets was delightfully crisp and the manner in which he melted into the second subject in C major was exquisite.

The orchestra showed a fine sensibility in following Hadland’s interpretation, joining in with well graded pianissimos and listening carefully to the countermelodies. The slower pace at which he took the first movement worked wonderfully well for the more reflective passages, though at times, in the cadenza for instance, I could have wished for more drive. This reflective approach, coupled by some sumptuous sounds from the strings, made for a very satisfying second movement. While in the third movement, the sharply delineated rhythms of the halling, a feisty Norwegian folk dance, and the sharp staccatos of the chords made for a compelling interpretation. The flute was suitably ethereal and dreamy in the middle section of this movement, and once again, Hadland’s fine chamber music instincts allowed for some wondrous countermelodies to be brought out that are rarely noticed otherwise. A soaring climax brought this novel interpretation of a very familiar concerto to a magnificent close.

The second half brought us Tchaikovsky’s not-often-heard First Symphony, a work which he revised several times but of which he was very fond. Under Petrenko this was a tremendously energetic performance with vivid colouring and dramatic touches. The details of first two movements (“Reveries of a winter journey” and “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists”) were well evoked with surging strings and Russian ardour. Surprisingly, there were some intonation slips in the horns, and in general the harshness of the brass led to a somewhat disappointing balance between this section and the rest of the orchestra. The second movement was a revelation of how fruitful the future partnership between Petrenko and the orchestra may be. Here, Petrenko allowed the music to speak for itself in an unhurried manner. With one hand casually at his side, he drew a warm sound from the woodwind section answered by a similar golden sound from the strings. His tempo of the fugue in the final movement was a shade too fast but nonetheless brimming with energy and ebullience. He led the music to an explosive climax, bringing this concert to a thrilling close.