Thursday’s concert in the Oslo Concert House marked the end of an era. It was, along with the concert the following evening, the final concert of Jukka-Pekka Saraste, the orchestra’s principal conductor for the last seven years. Final, as in his final concert as principal conductor: the orchestra isn’t letting go of him that easily. As a sign of the orchestra’s gratitude and desire to continue their cooperation, he was appointed honorary conductor at Thursday’s concert. And anyone wondering if Saraste indeed was worthy of such an honour would not have to wait long to find out that he indeed was.

On the programme this evening was Mahler’s giant Second Symphony, a multifaceted piece, ending with perhaps one of the most glorious choral finales in all of music. It was a rather fitting piece for Saraste’s last concert as chief conductor: not only is the symphony with its theme of resurrection a rather fitting metaphor for the Oslo Philharmonic, but Saraste is also renowned for his interpretations of Mahler, of which there have been quite a few here in Oslo.

This Thursday, the Oslo Philharmonic sounded better than I have ever heard them before. They managed to transcend the flat-out horrible acoustics of the Concert House, and deliver a searing performance, well-balanced and very well paced. Particularly outstanding were the low strings, whose violent outbursts during the first movement never lacked the necessary aggressiveness. Even though homogeneity was at times somewhat lacking in the faster passages, especially in the first movement, the string sound was always full and thrilling.

Saraste successfully brought out the second movement’s Classical and Beethovenian roots with a tender, lilting reading emphasising the grace of the Ländler, although the despair of the middle section shone through as well. The movement served nicely as a contrast to the more complex third movement, in which the brass were particularly outstanding.

In the fourth movement – “Urlicht” – time stood still. I personally think this is the single most beautiful movement Mahler ever wrote, largely because of the utterly gorgeous alto solo. Nathalie Stutzmann, the evening’s contralto soloist, did not disappoint. From her first solo entrance, she was entirely captivating, her voice a wall of sound filling every corner of the auditorium. Her “Urlicht” was characterised by sensitive phrasing and an at times surprising absence of vibrato that in no way diminished the sheer beauty of her singing. In addition the instrumental soli were uniformly excellent, especially the violin solo.

From the peace and tranquillity of the fourth movement, Saraste again plunged down into the depths of despair for the fifth, and the sudden transition was nothing less than soul-crushing. Saraste kept the intensity level high throughout, and even though the intonation in the offstage horns and trumpets was a bit off at times, it was nevertheless thrilling. This movement ultimately belongs to the brass, with its many solos and chorales, offstage music and thrillingly loud climaxes. The movement was as nuanced as one could wish, topped off with warm, golden brass that didn’t shy away from ugliness of tone when required.

The fifth movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony can generally be split into two parts: the one without chorus, and the one with. The chorus’ solo entrance is one of remarkable beauty, a beauty that is made even greater when the soprano soloist suddenly breaks free of the chorus to soar above. What follows is some wonderful choral and vocal writing, culminating in a literally breathtaking finale, the already giant orchestra and chorus reinforced with a pipe organ. I say “literally breathtaking” because I was so struck by the beauty of it all, I almost forgot to breathe.

With this performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, an important chapter in the history of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra has been finished. Jukka-Pekka Saraste has helped raise the musical level of the Oslo Philharmonic to quite possibly the highest they have ever been, something he definitely proved at Thursday’s concert. It is sad to see him go, although luckily it won’t be long until he returns to Norway and Oslo. In the meantime, it shall be exciting to see how Vasily Petrenko, the new chief conductor, fares.