Music, we all know, is a universal language, but there are times when nationality matters. Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor is Norway’s most famous musical export, a piece that’s familiar to us from uncountable concerts and dozens of recordings. But hearing it played by real Norwegians, in the shape of Leif Ove Andsnes and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, cast the Grieg concerto in a completely new light – and a very flattering one.

Leif Ove Andsnes and the Oslo Philharmonic © Tom Howard/Barbican
Leif Ove Andsnes and the Oslo Philharmonic
© Tom Howard/Barbican

Gone was any suggestion of overblown romantic sweep, with its grand gestures and big vibrato tugging at the heartstrings: in its place, we had grace, elegance, an almost folky joie-de-vivre. The lilt of the music was weighted to perfection, both from the Oslo Phil’s strings and from the soloist.

Even by the high standards of today’s concert pianists, Andsnes’ technique is formidable. The upper body is quiet, there is total economy of movement: if Andsnes raises a hand high off the keyboard, it’s not for histrionic effect but simply to get the desired weight of attack. While plenty of pianists can execute right hand semiquaver runs and trills with perfect evenness, Andsnes adds to this crystalline clarity and an extraordinary level of control over the dynamic contour of the whole phrase: the music swells and fades even through the most intricate of filigree runs. The lightness and crispness is breathtaking, nowhere more so than in an exceptionally vivid and colourful rendering of the cadenza and in his encore, Grieg’s Norwegian March.

Vasily Petrenko is not Norwegian (obviously), but it’s now a decade since he first conducted the Oslo Phil and the joy in the relationship is evident. The most telling passages were the quiet nocturne-like ones: it’s far easier for a string section to produce beautifully shaped phrases at fortissimo than in the quietest moments: here the Oslo Phil achieved the epitome of calm while maintaining vividness of colour. The horn sound was consistently gorgeous, but in an understated way: there were times when you didn’t notice the horns as individual instruments but simply appreciated the depth of texture that they added to the sound. For the concerto’s closing rondo, the folk dance lilt came to the fore, the music tripping gaily to close an eye-opening performance of an iconic work.

Vasily Petrenko © Tom Howard/Barbican
Vasily Petrenko
© Tom Howard/Barbican

This was the last concert in the Oslo Phil’s centenary tour. Back in 1919, their very first subscription concert featured Strauss’s Don Juan, which was therefore chosen as last night’s opener. Many of the orchestra’s qualities were on show in this first piece: the crispness, the clarity, the ability to lilt and even swing a phrase. Strauss’s ability to rhapsodise didn’t quite feel as if it came naturally, but the orchestra was clearly at home with the piece’s rather mercurial nature and they were able to display the excellence of their timbre, showing grandeur in the horn and brass-led passages towards the end.

The second half of the concert started in sombre and thoughtful mood with the slow first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 10. The emotion transmitted was of melancholy reflection rather than Shostakovich’s more usual fearful angst: the symphony was first performed some nine months after the death of Stalin, which may account for this. Shostakovich 10 is core repertoire for Petrenko and he guided the orchestra skilfully through this long movement with its waves of emotional build-up. Initially, it feels as if the strings are on a quest – for what, we cannot tell – until the advent of horns, timpani and a skirl of flute and piccolo build to a terrifying tutti, subsiding as the quest resumes and is handed to different instrument groups. Towards the end of the movement, we hear an extraordinary piccolo solo from Helen Benson, high, weird, disturbing.

The piccolo is prominent once more in the second movement: here is Shostakovich at his most manic with plenty of military fervour (whether real or ironic, it’s always hard to tell with this most enigmatic of composers). The third is in sardonic mood, with a trumpet-led three-time dance particularly notable.

I will admit to losing the overall architectural thread of the fourth movement: it felt a fraction long and the direction wasn’t clear to me. But it offered the chance for some wonderful virtuosity on the part of the Oslo Philharmonic woodwind section, not least the extraordinarily colourful, almost saxophone-like timbre of Roman Reznik's basson. The strings remained accurate throughout.

A pair of generous encores, Grieg’s Norwegian Dance no. 2 and Khachaturian’s Gopak from Gayaneh, saw Petrenko in ebullient mood, with the smiles on the player’s faces showing their delight in the rumbustious fun – the perfect antidote to Shostakovich’s melancholy.

****1