There are new forces at the helm at the Oslo Philharmonic. After last season’s final concert of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the farewell of the orchestra’s longtime chief conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, this season’s opener was the inaugural concert of the new chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko. Expectations have been high, especially after some very successful concerts this spring. Luckily, it is safe to say these expectations were met. And then some.

Petrenko opens the new Oslo Philharmonic season © Johannes Granseth
Petrenko opens the new Oslo Philharmonic season
© Johannes Granseth

The first piece of the concert was a new one, composed by this season’s composer-in-residence Ørjan Matre. Titled preSage, the piece is roughly modelled on The Rite of Spring, although the outright references are few and far between, being only a single chord and a single rhythmic pattern. Yet there are striking similarities, with its many sudden shifts of mood and pace, shimmering, transparent string textures suddenly being interrupted by frenetic outbursts in the winds. Matre also layered the different sections, producing some wonderful colours in the orchestra.

Next followed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 2. Right from the outset, an almost Mozartian elegance was readily apparent, both from Petrenko and the orchestra, but also from the soloist Leif Ove Andsnes. Andsnes showed seemingly effortless virtuosity, yet managed to convey the lyricism and playfulness so central to the piece. Petrenko and Andsnes clearly decided that this is not a concerto of grand, dramatic gestures, the orchestra pitted against the soloist: instead, the concerto is more of a collaborative effort, the orchestra and soloist working together, rather than against each other. The performance was understated, allowing the music to speak for itself rather than trying to create a false sense of inherent drama. The tempo in the first movement might have been on the fast side, but there was still immaculate clarity, and even in the most densely ornamented passages, every note was clearly articulated. A tender, delicately played second movement followed with some truly excellent playing from Andsnes, but also from the woodwinds.

The playfulness of the piece really came through in the third and final movement, a rondo played at breakneck speed. Andsnes seemed to have a lot of fun with the first theme, playing with the accents and distorting the overall sense of metre, especially further along in the movement. A most appreciated and humorous effect in a movement where the downbeat can be tricky to discern at times.

After intermission, it was time for the biggest piece of the concert – in terms of length, but not least in terms of the sheer size of the orchestra. Much has been written about Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring this year: its centenary has received a huge amount of attention. Not undeservedly, I hasten to add, but it has had a tendency to be just a little bit much. On the other hand, we haven’t exactly been spoiled for performances in Oslo this year, this concert being only the second performance the piece has received this year, and there’s really no denying that The Rite of Spring is an incredibly exciting piece.

Petrenko’s interpretation seemed to focus quite a lot on bringing out the different colours of the orchestra, especially those of the woodwinds, and in large part he succeeded, making it all sound remarkably vivid. Petrenko also seemed to be very much concerned, as he had been in preSage, with the difference in moods and textures in the piece, and not necessarily with presenting a cohesive whole. Not that the performance lacked cohesiveness, but clearly the orchestral colours of the moment and the contrast between the wildly varying sections mattered more. Light, transparent textures were suddenly interrupted by dense, heavy outbursts that seemed like they were never going to go away, before they disappeared just as suddenly as they appeared, giving way to an ominous calm. Throughout, the orchestra was remarkably alert to the hairpin turns in the piece, producing an impressive range of emotions and dynamics.

Perhaps one of the most characteristic features of Petrenko’s conducting is his attention to dynamics, especially the softer ones. While I at times find loud sections somewhat lacking, the soft ones can be just about as quiet as possible, but they are never lacking in energy or intent. This was especially apparent during The Rite of Spring, but even more so in the encore, Velkomne med æra (“Welcome with Honour”) from Geirr Tveitt’s Hundrad hardingtonar (“A Hundred Folk Tunes from Hardanger”), the final string tremolo a mere whisper before dying away completely, replaced by rapturous applause.

*****