It was clear that the programme of Thursday’s season opening with the Oslo Philharmonic was meant to pack a punch. From the bright, Technicolor fanfares of Hovland’s Fanfare og koral, to the multitude of musical styles in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C minor, to Strauss’ lavish orchestration and virtuosity in Ein Heldenleben. The performances had their flaws, but it was nevertheless an exciting concert, and promised much more excitement for the rest of the season.

Egil Hovland is perhaps not too well known abroad, but stands as one of the most important Norwegian composers of the last century. Fanfare og koral (“Fanfare and chorale”) is perhaps his most famous orchestral piece and it has been a repertoire stalwart of Norwegian orchestras and wind bands ever since the Oslo Philharmonic premiered the piece in 1967. The piece opens with a bright fanfare in the brass, soon joined by the rest of the orchestra. The Oslo Philharmonic horns and trumpets truly shone in this piece, playing with an heroic, bright sound. At times, I felt I was listening to the overture to a 1930s swashbuckler. In the more sombre chorale, I was disappointed by some rather muddy low brass playing, although things improved considerably when the rest of the brass joined in.

Simon Trpčeski © Simon Fowler
Simon Trpčeski
© Simon Fowler

Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 1 actually started out as a trumpet concerto, but after adding an ever growing piano part, the concerto wound up being for piano, but with a solo trumpet part. The concerto endlessly fluctuates between musical styles, at one moment displaying an almost Grieg-like romanticism, only to be followed seconds later by a biting sarcasm. Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski played almost with an air of nonchalance very fitting to the piece, downplaying its virtuosity, generally avoiding grand gestures, instead focusing on simply playing the music. He seemed to revel in the sudden style changes, and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, especially towards the finale.

Joining Trpčeski was Norwegian trumpet player Tine Thing Helseth, playing with a pure, silvery tone. I occasionally found it slightly lacking in punch and would have liked a more precise attack, but she really hit her stride in the finale, and the interjections in the first movement were wonderfully witty. As well as a good vehicle for the two soloists, this was really a showcase for the Oslo Philharmonic string section. They consistently play very well under Petrenko, with a creamy, homogenous sound, transcending the poor acoustics of the Oslo Concert House. They also produced some breathtaking pianissimo moments in the second movement.

Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben further served as a vehicle for the orchestra. It was originally not very well-received; it is generally agreed that it is an autobiographical piece (even though Strauss made several claims to the contrary), and critics at the time thought it a narcissistic exercise. It probably didn’t help that the nagging woodwind themes of the second movement were intended as a caricature of those very same critics. The piece opened with wonderfully swooning strings, even though more punch in the opening motif would have been desirable. The nagging woodwinds of the second movement were annoying enough, but I would have liked even more of a sense of line; it wound up being static polyrhythms that sadly didn’t take the music anywhere.

The extended violin solo that makes up the third movement made up for this, and concertmaster Elise Båtnes gave a ravishing, multifaceted account. Even though the orchestra sounded wonderful, there could have been more intensity, especially in the final half. Still, there were some glorious moments, especially from the horns, even though the intonation was slightly off at times. The final chords in the brass and woodwind were deliciously organ-like, although marred by some questionable intonation in the high woodwinds.

Although not entirely flawless, there were many truly wonderful moments in Thursday's season opening. As it really gets going, I have no doubt there will be several more.

***11