Pairing Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony, the so-called “Reformation Symphony”, and Bruckner’s Third Mass in F minor seemed to me at first a rather novel, but very interesting idea. It was perhaps not the most daring of programmes, but certainly a very interesting one, picking a symphony steeped in Protestant tradition and then a Catholic mass. In a way, the programme of Saturday’s concert with the Oslo Philharmonic seemed almost a tribute to ecumenicalism in general.

Members of Oslo Philharmonic © Stian Andersen
Members of Oslo Philharmonic
© Stian Andersen

The concert started out with Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony. It was actually his second completed symphony, but due to Mendelssohn not being able to finish it for the planned première, it was not published until 21 years after Mendelssohn’s death, and thus it became his “fifth”. The symphony was written to mark the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a key event during the Protestant Reformation. It also quotes church music, like the Dresden Amen, a motif that was famously used by Wagner as the Grail motif in Parsifal, and Martin Luther’s hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A mighty fortress is our God”).

The Oslo Philharmonic and their conductor Simon Gaudenz delivered a dramatic account of the first movement with plenty of forward momentum, almost veering on the side of too fast sometimes. But it was still a compelling performance with some very heroic playing from the brass. The forward momentum continued over into the second movement, a Scherzo, although it still provided a good contrast to the first movement, with playful woodwinds now dominating the sound. While it did feel a bit too “dancey” at times, it was nevertheless played with great precision, especially among the woodwinds. The third movement was more than capably played, but it felt like it was over almost before it had began. Although for this I think Mendelssohn is to blame rather than the Oslo Philharmonic.

The fourth movement was first and foremost characterised by an incredibly well-balanced orchestral sound, all the way from the opening chorale to the final one. And although the orchestra sounded great throughout, I would have really liked just a bit more brass during the final chorale. It really is one of those places where the brass should, if not drown the rest of the orchestra, then at least be heard way above the rest. One problem I found throughout the symphony was that softer dynamics seemed to be virtually non-existent, and while the orchestra’s loud playing was formidable, I would have liked to hear more dynamic contrast.

After intermission followed Bruckner’s Mass no. 3 in F minor. It is a relatively early piece, composed in 1868, a few years before the Second Symphony, but numerous revisions were made up until 1893, three years before his death. In addition to an orchestra, the mass features a chorus and four soloists.

The mass is dominated by the chorus with small interjections from the soloists. The chorus sang very well throughout this challenging piece, but the pronunciation was somewhat mysterious at times. Still, it was nice to hear something sung in German Latin for once. The soloists were something of a disappointment. Most of them occasionally struggled to be heard over the orchestra and chorus (although this is probably due to them being placed between the orchestra and the chorus, and not in front in addition to the nowhere near ideal acoustics of Oslo Cathedral). The singing, however silent at times, was good, and the soloists did a lot of wonderful things with their relatively small parts.

The soprano, Berit Norbakken Solset, was perhaps the one who struggled the most with audibility, never quite being heard over the orchestra. Still, there was some wonderful soft singing. I did feel that her voice was somewhat too light, especially as the “Hosanna in excelsis” line did become a little too chirpy. Kristina Hammarström, the alto soloist, also struggled to be heard over the orchestra, but she redeemed herself with a lovely, burnished tone and thoughtful phrasing. Tenor Tom Randle stepped in for an indisposed Marius Roth Tønnes-Christensen, and although he has an attractive, almost baritonal voice I would have liked something that offered some more contrast to the bass soloist Halvor Melien. Melien’s definitely had the heft required and his top seemed remarkably easy.

Overall, the orchestra played well, with the tempi on the fast side. The orchestra managed well the sudden shifts of mood that permeate the mass, although not to as large an extent as in Bruckner’s later symphonies. Especially the strings acquitted themselves very well.

All in all, it was a Saturday night well spent; a creative programme that was by and large played and sung very well indeed, capturing both of the Christian faiths that have dominated Norway throughout the last thousand years or so. It was certainly a welcome and well-thought-through addition to the Oslo Church Music Festival programme.