There seemed to be an air of general disinterest surrounding the Oslo Philharmonic last Thursday. They were playing what on paper seemed like a fairly interesting programme, Grieg’s rarely heard orchestration of his Lyric Pieces, Mahler’s devastating Kindertotenlieder and Schumann’s triumphant Symphony no. 2, and yet it somehow didn’t seem like it was of much of interest to the orchestra. Despite some fine performances, it wound up being a rather disappointing evening.

The concert opened with Grieg’s Lyric Suite, an orchestration of the first four pieces of the fifth volume of Lyric Pieces for solo piano, published in 1891. The first movement, Gjætergut (Shepherd Boy), is scored for string orchestra and conductor Eivind Aadland brought out a dignified melancholy from the opening violin melody. However, the more agitated middle section lacked any sense of direction, sounding more like a somewhat related collection of notes than a coherent musical idea. The lack of dynamic variety robbed the piece of much of its dramatic impact. The next movement, Gangar (Norwegian March), shows Grieg repeating a single thematic idea over and over; there is also the same element of repetition in the orchestration. Aadland seemingly did not make any attempts to differentiate between these repetitions and it came off as rather dull. More successful was the third movement, Notturno, and Aadland brought out sonorities from the orchestra at times reminiscent of Ravel. His approach was on the schmaltzy side, but the almost cloying sentimentality fitted the piece rather well. A sense of mischief was thankfully present in the fourth and final movement, Troldtog (March of the Dwarfs), which also featured some rather wonderful playing in the calmer middle section.

The next piece, Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”) is based on poems by the German poet Friedrich Rückert, poems written after the death of his two youngest children. Contralto Anna Larsson’s interpretation started out hauntingly unaffected, with a Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n utterly pervaded by a sense of shock, an unwillingness to feel at all. Especially chilling was the final line, greeting the “joyful light of the world”. The feeling of restraint followed throughout the cycle, even though more and more emotions started to show. It was not until the fifth and final song, In diesem Wetter that they were fully unleashed, and the torment and despair came almost surprisingly, a huge contrast to the subdued longing and self-delusion of the previous songs. The final section of the song became an even bigger turnaround, as a mood of utter calm and transcendence descended on the orchestra and soloist.

Throughout, Larsson showed a large dynamic range, carefully attentive to the text. There were diction problems in louder dynamics, and the text was often difficult to decipher when Larsson was singing loudly, but these dynamics nevertheless served an expressive purpose. Even though Larsson was fully committed to the piece, I did get the feeling that the orchestra and conductor weren’t; there were a few occasions where Larsson was overpowered, and there was a curious sense of disinterest which was not helped significantly by Aadland whose conducting made the piece sound like he just wanted to get through it.

Luckily, things did pick up somewhat after the intermission with Robert Schumann’s (rather curiously billed as Franz Schumann in the programme) Symphony no. 2 in C major. The first movement seemed to centre around the trumpets and the timpani, perhaps not so strange given Schumann writing to Mendelssohn about the “drums and trumpets” he heard in his head a few months before the completion of the symphony. The first movement is at times very contrapuntal, and overall I found it rather muddy, even though there was the occasional transparency. The second movement scherzo sounded under-rehearsed. The many fast runs in the strings were muddled and crisper articulation was sorely missed. The string sound was distinctly heterogeneous, on account of them simply not being together. Still, things got better towards the end, and the second iteration of the first section was much more successful. The third movement was oddly sterile, at times almost void of emotions. Aadland’s approach was rather more rubato-less than one might expect, and there were intonation issues here and there, especially in the woodwinds.

The sense of detachment continued into the fourth and final movement, the triumphant mood seeming oddly distant. Again, the articulation during the fast runs in the strings, the violins in particular, could have been a lot crisper, as it sounded more like a glissando than separate notes. The tempo was on the sluggish side, something that did not help with the pervasive lack of triumph.