Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic opened their UK tour with a heartfelt but intelligent programme of Grieg, Rachmaninov and Mahler. Bucking the recent trend for rather disappointing audiences in Manchester for visiting orchestras, the popular programme was a shrewd choice for the orchestra, particularly with Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski as soloist for Rachmaninov’s second concerto.

Simon Trpčeski © Simon Fowler
Simon Trpčeski
© Simon Fowler
After a first movement full of forward-driven angst and brooding darkness, Petrenko and Trpčeski engineered a magically honest slow movement in which pianist and orchestra sang as one. Simplicity was key, with Petrenko offering little more than guidance in the airy, maximally-spacious theme. There was a particularly touching moment of intimate interaction between divisi violas and soloist.

The finale immediately stepped into a crisper, more incisive stride. Trpčeski continued to play from an admirable palette of colours, matching thundering power with easy elegance in the softer moments. The ‘big tune’ was handled gently and with minimal sentimentality in its first appearances. After Petrenko smoothly nudged the intensity up through the gears, its final outing was full-blooded and impassioned at last, before a raucous last page. Trpčeski answered the huge cheer with the most touching of encores, a lovely arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise for solo cellist (the orchestra’s principal, Louisa Tuck) and accompanying piano.

The orchestra returned from the interval for the Mahler Symphony no. 5 with the final desks of strings reinstated (each section had been trimmed down slightly for the Rachmaninov, curiously). As he did in the concerto, Petrenko oversaw a performance of great intelligence, no excess of sugar in the slow movement and plenty of passion when called upon.

Principal trumpet Brynjar Kolbergsrud opened the work with a wonderfully rich, dark sound in his famous solo, setting the tone for defiant and resolutely forward-moving first movement. Petrenko’s pacing set the structure out with great clarity, making for compelling listening, while also drawing out some ferocious intensity and desperate cries of despair in the darker corners. He found the emotional core of the symphony, though, in the second movement. The multiple changes of tempo all made perfect sense here, flicking from brooding middle strings to wild brass and winds. It was the middle strings which defined the sound of the orchestra throughout the concert, with their rich, woody sound giving great depth to the music. When they found their stride, both in this movement and earlier in the concerto, they moved as one body on the stage, leaning into each line with wonderful collective musicality. The darkness made the movement’s climax all the more shattering, when Petrenko created a monumental parting in the clouds. The scherzo was similarly masterful in its command of Mahler’s capricious leaps from Ländler to the darkest introspection.

The tempo for the Adagietto was about as slow as possible, so it was to the great credit of the string section that it never felt heavy or syrupy, but rather was full of air and light. The finale dawned brightly but steadily with Inger Besserudhagen’s horn calls (she also played brilliantly in the second movement) before stepping into a vigorous rondo. It was a long, hard struggle to the climax, which, when it came, was as joyous as could be hoped for.

The evening was bookended by two miniatures of perfect charm and grace: the first, Gangar from Grieg’s popular Lyric Suite (originally for piano), though over in a jiffy, offered a pleasingly bucolic nod to the orchestra’s homeland, while the post-Mahler encore, a strings-only arrangement of one of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, cleared the air without threatening to usurp the symphony. It ended a memorable concert and superb start to the orchestra’s UK tour.