A concert programme consisting of Haydn, Mozart and Brahms can often seem like an historical exercise, designed only to show the influences of the first two on the latter. Luckily, Juanjo Mena and the Oslo Philharmonic, not to mention the soprano soloist Mari Eriksmoen, gave engrossing performances of the whole programme, the Haydn and Mozart often surpassing the Brahms in musical interest.

Mari Eriksmoen © Sveinung Bjelland
Mari Eriksmoen
© Sveinung Bjelland

Haydn’s Symphony no. 85 in B flat major is the fourth of his six so-called Paris Symphonies, written for performance in the French capital. It quickly became a favourite of Queen Marie Antoinette, and thereby earned the moniker La Reine. Mena and the Oslo Philharmonic played the ceremonious Adagio introduction of the first movement perhaps a touch too quickly, as it never quite got the time to settle. Dominated by strings and horns, the symphony was played with an unmistakably French character. The rapid scales in the strings sounded almost Rameau-esque. As is so often the case with Haydn, the first movement is filled with musical twists and turns, tempestuous scales and arpeggios giving way to delicate oboe melodies. The Allegretto, a double variation on a French folk song, gently flowed along, even though the tempo at times felt a little uneasily fast.

The Menuetto again showed Haydn’s unpredictable streak, a stately opening giving way to a curiously lilting bassoon and strings-dominated trio. The final Presto, however, seemed somewhat lacking. Where the preceding movements all had a sense of lightness to them, helped by overly fast tempi in some cases, this fourth movement seemed to be taken at a comparative slog. Despite some very good playing, the movement lacked the all-important spark, never quite reaching the playfully frenzied character implied by the tempo marking.

Continuing on the Classicist streak, next followed three arias by Mozart sung by Mari Eriksmoen. Mozart wrote Ah, se in ciel for his eventual sister-in-law, Aloysia Lange. The text is from Metastasio’s L’eroe cinese (The Chinese Hero) in which the character Lisinga is imploring the stars to protect and bring back her beloved husband. The aria is, despite the source material, devoid of “Eastern” influences, but it is full of almost never-ending coloratura runs, treacherous leaps and long phrases and can very quickly end up an étude in fast runs and jumps. Apart from a few iffy register breaks at the very top, Eriksmoen sang with impeccably clean coloratura and managed to imbue the many runs with emotional content, making it sound more like an actual aria and less like a technical exercise.

Following the pyrotechnics of Ah, se in ciel, “Ach, ich fühl’s” from The Magic Flute offered a change of pace. Eriksmoen sang Pamina’s anguished lament, subtly shading every word. Expressively, this aria seemed to fit her better than the previous, especially since there were more words for her to hang on to and help shape her phrases. The final aria, “Al destin, a la minaccia” from Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto proved a riveting conclusion to the first half. It contains more than its fair share of coloratura runs and large leaps. Eriksmoen took on the challenges posed by the aria head on and sang with almost alarming ease. Clearly properly warmed up, the runs and jumps sounded utterly effortless, and although I wanted more intent in her singing, Eriksmoen’s technical prowess had me completely enthralled. As an encore, Eriksmoen sang “Deh vieni, non tardar”, Susanna’s Act IV aria from The Marriage of Figaro, a refreshingly simple palate cleanser after the vocal fireworks that had immediately preceded it.

With echoes of Haydn and Mozart never far away, came Brahms’ Third Symphony. Mena emphasised the contrast between the grandly dramatic and the intimately lyrical, almost to a dizzying extent. The opening did struggle to gain momentum, but the orchestra impressed with a full, meaty sound and some excellent woodwind playing. The second movement clarinet solo had a lyrical earnestness to it, giving way to some unusually lush strings. Mena seemed conscious, especially in the two middle movements, to tone down the sentimental character of the symphony.

The aching lyricism of the cello melody opening the third movement was refreshingly non-indulgent, restrained without turning analytical. The warmth of the cello section seemed to follow the melody as it travelled through the orchestra. The drama of the fourth movement was ever-present, menace always lurking in the background, except when it took centre stage. As in the third movement, the horns played with impeccably golden tone in the solos with the cello section. The final, contemplative calm proved a wonderfully ambiguous, if somewhat out of tune, ending to the ferocious movement.