Thursday’s concert with the Oslo Philharmonic might not have featured the most exciting programme, dominated by what one might call the less exciting (but no less beautiful) parts of Eastern European Romanticism, although it still provided ample opportunity for engaging music-making. The remainder, however, proved to be some of the most exciting music I’d heard in quite a while.

Janine Jansen © Harald Hoffman
Janine Jansen
© Harald Hoffman

The first piece of the concert was the first movement of Leo Weiner’s Hungarian Folk Dances, Op. 18. Weiner, a younger contemporary of Bartók and Kodály, was not as influenced by folk music, opting for a more Germanic style with influences of Romantics past such as Mendelssohn and Brahms. While the music was pleasant and very melodious, and the orchestration delightfully colourful, it all felt somewhat put-on, lacking the sense of authenticity (for lack of a better word) and the adventurous harmonic and melodic language of Bartók and Kodály. But the orchestra did admirably with the music and there was some very fine playing from the horns and woodwinds as well as from the orchestra at large. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that conductor Thomas Søndergård could have produced even more vivid orchestral colours.

Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto was another beast entirely. Gone was the faux-folk music, replaced by a pervading sense of anguished lyricism, always a note of despair lurking in the background. Even though her tone is a very beautiful and distinctive one, Janine Jansen, the evening’s soloist, never seemed to put the production of beautiful sound as a priority, instead going for the largest dramatic impact; the sound serving the music, not the other way around. Her sound even veered on the ugly side from time to time. Still, as previously mentioned, there was always a sense of lyricism to her playing. Her sense of phrasing and of long lines was readily apparent, even in the more aggressive, militaristic parts of the concerto. The orchestra sounded even better than it had during the Weiner, continuously changing the sound to best support the soloist. Especially impressive were the strings, ranging from warm and lush to downright aggressive, the former especially tricky to pull off in the horrendous acoustics of the Oslo Concert House.

What followed, Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 was a bit of a let-down compared to the at times truly fantastic playing of the Britten concerto. The opening theme in the cellos was wonderfully played, but I felt it lacked some of the all-embracing warmth a theme like that so desperately craves. Luckily, that warmth was present when the theme returned later in the symphony. And the following theme was a lot more successful, with some very good woodwind and brass playing. The articulation, however, could have been crisper overall, especially in the strings. There was, thankfully, a true sense of drama in the at times tempestuous middle section. The second movement, for all its wealth of gorgeous melodies, never really seemed to be any more than just that, and it didn’t look like Søndergåd made much of an effort to make the movement more than a mere collection of pretty tunes. That is not to say that the individual melodies weren’t well played, because they were, but the movement as a whole lacked any sense of cohesion.

The third movement, an elegant, lilting waltz, did not suffer from the same lack of cohesiveness as the second, but it proved rather a little too pleasant. There was no trace of the wonderful dramaticism of the first movement, which left the movement with a distinctly bland feel. The emphasis on the general pleasantness of the music also made the playful, bubbling coda seem weirdly out of place. Things picked up, however, with a lively and bubbling fourth movement – although an element of precision was lacking in the transitions between the contrasting variations, and things needed a few seconds to settle. While the louder parts were glorious in the moment, they really were too loud, seeing as the finale sounded distinctly unimpressive; there was simply no more volume left.

Despite some rather uninteresting repertory choices, Thursday’s concert with Oslo Philharmonic was a success, in no small part thanks to Janine Jansen and her ability to make any phrase sing out, whether it be in joy or (in this case) endless despair and torment. The rest of the programme did feature some very good playing, but it was the violin concerto that emerged as the true gem of this concert.