There are many ways to start the New Year. Choosing the route of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, and Wilhelm Stenhammar’s considerably more ambitious Symphony no. 2 in G minor seemed an interesting choice, but not one I am sure paid off in the end. Conducted by the grand old man of Scandinavian conductors, Herbert Blomstedt, the Oslo Philharmonic played beautifully, yet the performance was still somewhat uninspiring and lacking in musical imagination, leaving me to wonder to what extent the orchestra had mentally returned from their Christmas breaks.

Herbert Blomstedt © J M Pietsch
Herbert Blomstedt
© J M Pietsch

Mozart’s charming Sinfonia concertante seemed a mostly successful exercise in Mozart-by-numbers. The orchestra played with a smooth and velvety, but unindulgent, sound, Blomstedt keeping the orchestra going at a moderate pace. Soloists Elise Båtnes and Catherine Bullock played well, the brightness of Båtnes’ violin nicely blending with the earthy nasality of Bullock’s viola, although intonation was occasionally awry. Still, the performance rarely amounted to much more than going through the motions. The music just happened, with little sense of shaping. Only in the cadenzas were musical ideas allowed the freedom to unfold. While the playing was more than competent, the music rarely veered far from ‘pleasantly bland’ territory.

Following the interval, Båtnes and Bullock found their places as leaders of the violin and viola sections for Wilhelm Stenhammar’s Second Symphony. Stenhammar, a contemporary and champion of both Nielsen and Sibelius, dedicated the symphony to the players of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, of which he was chief conductor. The symphony is clearly indebted to Sibelius, with sparsely lush orchestration, dominated by strings and woodwinds, yet there is little of the formal and timbral experimentation found in the music of his Finnish colleague. Stenhammar is much more conservative in his music, frequently dipping his toes into lusher, more romantic waters, drawing heavily on the symphonies of Bruckner and Brahms, bursting with swooning horns and cellos.

His melodies are often folk music-inspired, flecked with modal harmonies and punctuated by wide expanses of calm. The music builds into great, Brucknerian climaxes, often unexpectedly changing direction. Indeed, there was always direction in Blomstedt’s conducting, the music always going somewhere; yet it had limited space in which to grow, the dynamic contrast never quite being great enough. But the orchestra played beautifully, gloriously burnished violas and cellos bringing out the undulating lyricism of the second movement. Despite the third movement having some uninspired transitional moments – a feature of the outer movements as well – the lively, folk dance-like Scherzo was utterly charming.

The fourth and final movement is the largest of the symphony, packed with fugues and ever more whirling counterpoint, yet there was a lack of frenzied determination. The playing was as beautiful as ever – the horn-tinted introduction in particular – yet without much variation in dynamics, there was little sense of progression, of how the many fugal sections related to each other, and not least leaving the ending sounding downright underwhelming. However beautiful the playing, the whole symphony could have done with more restraint, letting the magnificence of the climaxes stand out even clearer.

Beautiful playing can only get you so far when it comes to orchestral music. Throughout Thursday’s concert, there seemed to be an unwillingness to shape the music into something more than dots on a page, both on the part of the orchestra and the conductor. While I hope the level of playing stays this high for the rest of the season, the Oslo Philharmonic’s music making left something to be desired.