Thursday’s concert with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra started not with music, but with an award ceremony. It was the Norwegian Sibelius Society that gave away its annual award for the strengthening of cultural ties between Norway and Finland. Present were the Sibelius Society’s chair Stephan Barratt-Due, Finland’s ambassador to Norway Maimo Henriksson, and the recipient of the award, Sinikka Langeland. After she received the award, she sang a traditional Forest Finnish song, accompanying herself on the kantele, a traditional Finnish instrument. Forest Finns are descendants of Finnish immigrants who settled in Norway by the Swedish border to the north-east of Oslo during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Denis Matsuev © CAMI
Denis Matsuev
© CAMI

Once Langeland had finished playing, the concert proper began. On the programme was Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto and Nielsen’s fourth symphony. The soloist for the Rachmaninov concerto was the Russian pianist Denis Matsuev. This performance also marked his debut with the orchestra. His account of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 was truly ravishing. His playing was crystal clear, even during Rachmaninov’s most virtuosic writing, his phrasing natural, and he never slid into the kind of sentimental, overly romantic interpretation that can easily almost ruin a piece like this concerto. Matsuev also played the longer, more difficult, original first-movement cadenza. His use of pedal, however, was a tad too liberal and often managed to blur out some of the virtuosic passages.

The orchestra, on the other hand, sounded muffled at times, especially the strings in dynamics below mezzo-forte, but in the louder tutti sections of the piece, they had a large, dark tone that sounded very good. Especially the introduction of the second movement was played magnificently. The winds also had a tendency of almost disappearing behind a wall of piano, especially during louder sections of the piece, but this may just as well be because of the hall’s rather poor acoustic. The balance between the orchestra and the soloist was very uneven and the piano was often on the verge of drowning out the orchestra. Still, the orchestra was generally heard when they needed to be, and with such brilliant piano playing, I found I didn’t really mind. Having finished the third movement with a finale so fast that it almost left the audience gasping for breath, the hall erupted into applause, and Matsuev came back to play two encores. The first one was yet more Rachmaninov, the Prelude in A flat minor, but the second was perhaps the more successful encore of the two: a paraphrase over Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, much to the delight of the audience.

If the orchestra was found lacking in the Rachmaninov, they certainly redeemed themselves in the Nielsen. His Symphony no. 4, nicknamed Det Uudslukkelige in the original Danish, often translated as “The Inextinguishable” in English, consists of four continuous movements and is so named because Nielsen with this piece wanted to express man’s eternal will to live. The piece is in Nielsen’s own unmistakeable style, with wind-dominated orchestration and slightly eccentric but often gorgeously lyrical melodies.

As in the Rachmaninov, the strings were glorious in the louder tutti sections of the piece, but every time the dynamics went below forte, the sound was almost swallowed by the hall. Much of the dramatic potential of the symphony, especially the many tutti viola solos in the first movement, was lost because of this. Other than that, the strings had a large, homogenous sound that nevertheless was lost somewhat during the fast transition to the fourth movement. The same transition also suffered from overpowering violins.

While the Rachmaninov relies heavily on the strings, the Nielsen gives the wind players, especially the woodwinds, a lot more room, with long solos; the second movement is scored largely for solo woodwinds. And the winds truly delivered, which was entirely welcome after they’d almost disappeared behind the piano in the Rachmaninov concerto. Especially wonderful were the horns, who did some marvellous ensemble playing.

Both the soloist and the orchestra were absolutely marvellous at Thursday’s concert, and with such a magnificent debut, I hope it won’t be long before Matsuev plays in Oslo again.

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