After the première of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in 1937, the composer was reported to have called it “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism”, referring to Stalin's response (as reported by Pravda) to his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The more restrained and conservative musical language of Shostakovich’s Fifth seems to have inspired the Oslo Philharmonic to programme it, Shostakovich’s most famous symphony, alongside similarly famous pieces by Grieg and Sibelius. In the end, it made for an uninteresting and more than occasionally dull evening.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty
Starting the concert, were three movements from Grieg’s Lyric Suite: “Gangar” (Norwegian March), “Notturno” and “Troldtog” (March of the Trolls). These pieces were originally written for piano, as part of Grieg’s multi-volume Lyric Pieces, a collection of piano miniatures, but were orchestrated by the composer towards the end of his life. Despite the first movement, “Gangar”, being a folk dance which takes its name from the Norwegian word for walking, Petrenko’s rendition was more of a brisk trot than a walk, losing some of its folkloric charm. The next movement, “Notturno”, can often sink into an abyss of sentimentality, but instead of dwelling too long on the luxuriantly lush string sounds, Petrenko hurried the piece along rather unceremoniously, and the enchanting middle section never achieved that proto-Debussian magic for which it calls out. Despite some tempo eccentricities in the lyrical middle part of the final “Troldtog”, Petrenko seemed most at home here, adding a delightful mischievousness to the outer sections.

Violin soloist Henning Kraggerud spent the week rehearsing two concertos with the Oslo Phil, Tchaikovsky for Thursday and Sibelius for Friday. Perhaps it was because of this that Kraggerud seemed just to be going through the motions in his performance of the Sibelius concerto. Even though the phrasing of the slow, lyrical opening was wonderfully delicate, Kraggerud never seemed to reach the emotional extremes so central to this concerto. Tuning was also an issue throughout, Kraggerud even having to re-tune between the first and second movements.

Only towards the end of the third movement was there a sense of the diabolical mania that so lacked from the entire performance. Still, the orchestra played beautifully throughout, if a little disinterestedly. Friday’s concert was the second time in less than three months that the Oslo Phil played the Sibelius, and I kept wondering why something else had not been programmed, especially when none of the performers seemed particularly interested.

Interest finally picked up with Shostakovich’s Fifth. The first movement was imbued with a kaleidoscopic dizziness, the angular opening string motif creating a framework for the swirling sonorities of the orchestra. The music surged towards climaxes that never appeared, instead changing direction into a brief moment of clarity before hurtling back towards chaos. While the playing was admirable, the big, frankly sadistically horn solo in the middle of the movement could have done with fewer flubbed notes. The second movement was taken surprisingly quickly, the opening cello and bass melody never quite having that biting aggression, and the ensuing burlesquery of the waltz being played surprisingly straight. Only in the middle section was there more of a sense of mockery, as well as the very end where Petrenko finally played around with the tempo.

The pained third movement was, as it so often is, the emotional highlight of the symphony, a thick, blanket of strings and woodwinds heaving in ever more pained counterpoint. With the fourth movement came some longed-after savagery in the opening brass free-for-all, extending even to the dictatorially jubilant finale.

For some reason, the Oslo Philharmonic ended the concert with not one, but two encores. It could be argued that the first, Sibelius’ Valse Triste, was at least somewhat in keeping with the melancholy of the Shostakoch symphony, but the second, the lively “Lezginka” from Khatchaturian’s ballet Gayaneh (with Petrenko stepping in as an extra percussionist), just seemed out of place. At least the musicians seemed to enjoy themselves.

The Oslo Phil is taking this programme on tour next month. I hope they can muster some enthusiasm by then.