Even before the Oslo Philharmonic and Vasily Petrenko took to the stage of the Oslo Concert House, I got a sense of the bustling, expectant marketplace in St Petersburg so vividly portrayed by Stravinsky in Petruskha. It was homegrown soprano Lise Davidsen who had drawn the crowds – including Queen Sonja of Norway – with the promise of Strauss’ Vier Lieder (Op.27). Stravinsky’s perennial favourite Petrushka followed the interval, so I was interested to see how Strauss’ Metamorphosen would fare against the rest.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Metamorphosen was directly inspired by the bombing of Strauss’ beloved Hoftheater in Munich, razed to the ground in an air raid in 1943, but it is also a requiem for the annihilation of the reputation of German cultural heritage after the Second World War. Not an afterthought of a piece, then, but it was hard to see it otherwise on this occasion.

A study for 23 solo strings, the independence of the parts came across too starkly through the many shifts between keys and tonalities, volume and tempo. It lost its way in quieter sections, which would have been a welcome effect had the fuller lines not been so disjointed, players seeming to concentrate more on not losing their place than listening to their desk partner.

Missing feet were found by the orchestra in the Vier Lieder, clearly delighting as much in accompanying Lise Davidsen as I did in hearing her. Ruhe, meine Seele! gets first prize: her commanding forte over uneasy, menacing dissonance in the lower orchestra was tinged with shades of imploring and calm. That is the distilled essence of the poem, but to administer it so well must be a near impossible exercise in the subtlest balance.

Cäcilie burst forward from Petrenko’s baton like a sunbeam through the clouds. Davidsen’s upper register has a clarion quality to it that made my ears ring in harmony with the surging orchestra, while the climaxes in Heimliche Aufforderung were no less thrilling, with flitting flutes trilling out the thrills of a secret meeting between a pair of lovers.

At more muted volumes, there is a powerfully hypnotic quality to Davidsen’s voice, and I was utterly drawn into the worlds of the latter songs. The interplay between soprano and lead violinist Elise Båtnes’ beautifully simple solo in Morgen! was captivating; so too the way Davidsen floated effortlessly over ethereal strings in Wiegenlied.

Even though there were no ballet dancers for Petrushka, I was still struck by the visual display: the movement of objects and bodies on the stage, and the way the sound itself ripped, wriggled and ricocheted around the orchestra, my eyes darting around in a vain but enjoyable attempt to follow it.

Sometimes the sound rippled inwards from grunting double basses and piano, sometimes it zipped across the tops of the upper strings, bows flying in all directions as they jabbed and prodded the tune along to its next recipient. Violas leaned in, a flash of metal from the back as trombones prepared to fire, a mallet sent skyward with a flourish… a monumental crash! The music snatched a breath before spinning off again up cello fingerboards and down clarinet bells.

Petrenko summoned the hustle of the Shrovetide market square in St Petersburg by dropping us right in the middle of it. Woodwind squeaked, harps gushed and percussion tinkered from market stalls in the distance, making those sounds all the more interesting above the drunken hubbub of the strings in the foreground. 

Momentum was never lost, enrapturing the audience in much the same way as the magician spellbound his audience with his puppets. Darker elements raised the hairs on my neck; enchanted violins and a virtuosic piano embodied the disconcerting, dancing, almost too lifelike movements of the puppet Petrushka. The motifs that depict the Moor, though facile to a modern audience, were treated with grace and a dash of menace that transcended musical and cultural clichés.

Petrushka is exactly the kind of thing the Oslo Philharmonic should be doing with Petrenko. I listened to the final, poignantly doubting notes with no doubt at all that they were at the top of their game in this piece.

****1