An aquatic theme seemed to unite the programme when the Oslo Philharmonic took to the stage with conductor Marek Janowski. Schumann’s Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, the “Rhenish”, and excerpts from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung all take their inspiration from the River Rhine. Unfortunately, the programme proved lacking, through uninspired playing and missing musical context.

Marek Janowski © Felix Broede
Marek Janowski
© Felix Broede

Schumann’s symphonies can often come across as densely orchestrated, clumsy lumps of Romantic tediousness. Too large orchestral forces can obscure the rhythmical drive and delicate textures of Schumann’s orchestral writing, drowning out winds in a sea of relentless strings. Such, alas, was the case when the Oslo Philharmonic and Janowski rolled out Schumann’s mighty “Rhenish” Symphony.

From the very beginning, the intensely rhythmical music that initiates the first movement was limp and smudged, played with an air of general disinterest. While the orchestra seemed to agree more on rhythmical matters towards the end of the movement, softer dynamics now and again would have been welcome. The second movement, originally titled “Morning on the Rhine”, sounded more like a speedboat journey in the midst of a storm.

As a trombonist, the very mention of this symphony sends shivers down my spine. Schumann, as so many other composers, was not particularly generous with his brass writing, and in his Third, the trombones don’t play until the fourth movement. Granted, they then get to play a gloriously mystical chorale, but it is an excruciatingly high one for the alto trombone. Coming at it completely cold, not having played for half an hour is nothing short of terrifying. Unfortunately, instead of a full and beautiful sound, opening up at the top, the chorale was strained and liable to cracking. There was little sense of group unity within the trombones, with strange phrases and breaths taken at inopportune moments. At least in the final movement, there were moments where the orchestra at least sounded like they were enjoying themselves.

After intermission, the three excerpts from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung found the orchestra in far better form, with creamy lower strings, warm woodwinds and a properly rasping contrabass trombone. There was even markedly more activity from Janowski, who had spent the first half of the concert languidly beating time. “Siegfried's Rhine Journey” was played with all the interest and rollicking excitement that had so been lacking in the Schumann, the strings, in particular the cellos and violas, revelling in Wagner’s lush writing, and the brass had a fullness and warmth that hadn’t been apparent beforehand. However, the extended first horn solo added an element of danger by sounding perilously close to cracking. In the imposing “Funeral March”, Janowski brought out a frightening volume from the brass, but also some achingly beautiful woodwind melodies.

I was unsure just why the Oslo Philharmonic had chosen all of these Wagner excerpts. They are certainly among the most obvious excerpts from all of Wagner’s Ring, which neatly fits into the Rhine-soaked programme, but Wagner is best enjoyed in context, not in bleeding chunks. While it was fun, with quadruple winds, contrabass trombone, bass trumpet, four harps and Wagner tubas, there was something very incomplete about the whole thing. The feeling of incompleteness followed into the final excerpt of the evening, Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, the very conclusion of Götterdämmerung and the Ring.

Petra Lang, the evening’s Brünnhilde, needed some time to warm up, and although she looked terrifyingly fierce as she walked on-stage, there was an odd closed-off quality to her middle register. Her higher register had a tendency of drifting sharpwards, and while the sound was attractive enough, more consonants were required. Her voice seemed to find its bearings halfway through with a scintillating “Fliegt heim, ihr Raben”, but by then there wasn’t much left. What a pity she didn’t get any more to sing, now that she’d got going properly.