Neither the music of Jean Sibelius nor Carl Nielsen has featured particularly heavily in Oslo this season, but finally the Oslo Philharmonic performed Nielsen’s dazzlingly virtuosic Violin Concerto and Sibelius’ powerful First Symphony. Together with a new piece by resident composer Henrik Hellstenius, it was sadly something of an uneven concert, with pieces varying in quality and at times strange interpretations.

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

Behind Henrik Hellstenius’ Petites Machines is the thought that so many of our actions and interactions as humans are almost mechanical in nature, small movements and gestures performed almost with no thought behind them. As with his previous pieces that have been played this season, Petites Machines consists of repeated gestures, small musical motifs and ideas, layered on top of one another.

The main problem of Petites Machines is that it is simply too static and too long; nothing much happens in the 12-odd minutes of the piece, and it appeared simply as a collection of not very loud sounds with little sense of development. The piece could have been an interesting exploration of orchestral sonorities, but Hellstenius resorted to high violins, frantic melodic percussion and the occasional loud brass. While the idea of layering small musical motifs can be a very effective one, Hellstenius’ piece was simply too monotonous, recycling clichéd tropes of contemporary music with a sadly rather disappointing result.

Carl Nielsen’s Violin Concerto is something of a puzzling piece. Written in 1911 just after his Symphony no. 3, Nielsen eschewed the traditional three movement structure of a concerto, opting instead for two movements, each consisting of a slow and a fast section. The concerto is very technically demanding, which is probably at least part of the reason why it is not performed more often.

In his performance, soloist James Ehnes came firmly down on the side of virtuosic brilliance, impressing with his technical command in the two faster sections, especially the two dazzling cadenzas. Unfortunately, the two slower sections were uninspired, as if Ehnes was simply getting through the notes. These slower sections lacked shape, and even though the orchestra provided wonderful accompaniment (not counting the rather mysterious horn intonation in the second slow section), one got the impression that they were just something to get through before the more explicitly exciting fast sections.

Vasily Petrenko is much more famous for his interpretations of Shostakovich’s symphonies than his performances of the symphonies of Sibelius. During Thursday’s performance of the latter’s Symphony no. 1, there was more than a trace of Shostakovich, not offering any special insights into an oft-performed piece, but rather adding an ill-fitting brutality and violence. This violence was especially marked in the first movement, with overly loud trumpet solos and aggressive string accents. However, the third movement Scherzo took rather well to Petrenko’s brutal approach. Luckily, the violence eased up as the piece went on, and the fourth movement lacked the angularity of the preceding movements.

The orchestra struggled with balance in the symphony, and especially puzzling was the brass. In general, the trumpets were too loud, the horns underpowered and the bass trombone and tuba too loud. The brass chorale in the first movement was odd, in that the first and second trombones and horns were almost swallowed up by the bass trombone and tuba. The opening clarinet solo was altogether lacking in shape, and seemed at times a little rushed.

The music of Nielsen and Sibelius might not be Vasily Petrenko’s strongest suit. While there were some lovely moments, especially the Sibelius suffered from a lack of distance, an insistence upon violence where they may not even be any.