Vasily Petrenko is now midway through his tenure of Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Scandinavian orchestras seem to be a hotspot for the best young conductors to hone their skills, with Daniel Harding, Edward Gardner and Gustavo Dudamel all taking up principal conductorships with orchestras from Northern Europe.

Henning Kraggerud © Robert Romik
Henning Kraggerud
© Robert Romik
Thursday night’s concert suggests that Petrenko is building a warm rapport with the orchestra. The programme was an all-out crowd-pleaser, opening with a selection of excerpts from Grieg’s Lyric Suite. The Norwegian March had a pleasant, pastoral feel, and the Nocturne was played with an elegance that made it sound almost Debussy-like. The March of the Dwarfs was played with a real sense of rip-roaring fun, and these three short, contrasting pieces really showcased a great depth of variety for the opening ten minutes of a concert.

Next, Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud took to the stage to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, preceded by a slightly meandering but nonetheless engaging speech about the piece and his intentions to play it as Tchaikovsky originally intended before the revisions (mainly to the tempi) after exclamations that it was ‘unplayable’. What this meant in practice were some very daring speeds. Many violinists take the final movement at an alarming play to showcase their virtuosity, but Kraggerud and Petrenko applied this method to the first movement too. To some extent, it did liven up a movement that can sometimes seem indulgent in the wrong hands; however, it did lead to a higher level of inaccuracy that would be normal in this part of the piece. Similarly, the final movement was taken at an extreme pace and there was little sense that Kraggerud had conquered the piece. He did have a captivating stage presence and play with passion but there were a few too many incorrect notes for me to be won over. It would have been a happier medium to find a better balance between fireworks and accuracy.

Petrenko seemed to come alive for the final piece, Shostakovich’s famously duplicitous Symphony no. 5 in D minor. He had elicited good playing from the orchestra up to the point, but there was a slight sense of detachment in his demeanour. From the opening ascending and descending minor sixths in the strings, this was an impassioned performance. The biting sarcasm, and almost nihilistic, tone of the faux-militaristic style march in the first movement was captured well. The Allegretto was also bursting with energy and satirical wit, both acknowledging its nods to Mahler but retaining its Russian flair. The Largo is coded with both Russian folk songs and music from the Orthodox Church and famously made the first audiences weep as they understood this was Shostakovich’s subtle requiem for those who had perished under Stalinism. Petrenko controlled the pace of the movement well to its tormented conclusion, and then leapt with gusto into the bombastic opening of the final movement. The brass in particular were on excellent form, playing with a rich and imposing sound. I had hoped for a slightly more laboured feel to the ‘forced’ rejoicing of the closing bars, but otherwise this was a masterful performance.

This evening’s concert suggests that there is much to look forward to from this orchestra under Petrenko’s baton.