The soft, ethereal tone of the flute and oboe wafted through the Cultural Centre Concert Hall in Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite no. 1 as the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra opened the first of two concerts in the 45th Hong Kong Arts Festival. Conductor Vasily Petrenko cut a slim and dashing figure swaying his arms in gentle curves to create an air of crisp freshness just right for the “Morning Mood” in the incidental music to Ibsen’s chronicles of the protagonist’s exploits from the Norwegian mountains to the desert of North Africa.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

The burnished tone of the strings in “The Death of Åse” took the meandering melody on an elegiac journey to nothingness. We held our breath in the suspended air of queasy sorrow. Instead of coming across in a swirl of seduction, “Anitra’s Dance” was a gentle hopscotch of lightness, in lingering respect for the mournful mood of the last section in some superb ensemble playing. One could be forgiven for becoming a little dizzy in the spiralling and ominous crescendo at the heart of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as the trolls danced away in wild abandon. I was impressed by how the Oslo Philharmonic maintained a sense of restraint as it perfectly captured the otherworldly mood of this landmark Nordic tale.

As the orchestra downsized and made way for cellist Truls Mørk, they switched gear drastically into the firmly grounded Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat major by Shostakovich. Dedicated to, and said to have been memorised in four days by, the legendary Rostropovich, the concerto is a fine example of nervous agitation. The jittery four-note opening set the mood for what was to be a parade of apprehension and anxiety. The jagged progress of the first movement, with frequent and sometimes irritating interruption from the high winds, was in fits and starts. Mørk bobbed up and down in a churning sea of orchestral tension, trying to come up for air often. It wasn’t as if the orchestra tried deliberately to overwhelm him, but he somehow had a hard time asserting himself.

The second movement is a collection of shivering wails interspersed with some exquisite interplay among the only horn, clarinet, soloist and the rest of the orchestra. In fact, by making the initial statement, the horn set the melancholic tone for the rest of the movement. The solo cello’s answer was insistent and unequivocal. Mørk’s masterful phrasing and sustained control made the grief all the more poignant. The cello’s high-pitched response to the celesta as the movement drew to a close gave the eerie impression of a coffin being lowered into the grave. The cadenza, in itself a movement, was a continuation of more sobbing on the cello and turned out to be a long-drawn-out plea for mercy and relief from a life of pain.

A rapid change of pace followed in the final movement, as the soloist regurgitated variations on material from the first movement and shook us out of the mournful trance we had fallen into during the previous two movements. Constant nudging by the orchestra helped ease the soloist into a bout of bouncy energy to end on a high. It was a triumph for the soloist after all.

Sergei Rachmaninov must be the stubborn rearguard of romanticism in the early part of the 20th century. I often think of his Symphony no. 2 in E minor as the musical equivalent of Gone with the Wind. Many a conductor would take it to the limit and turn it into a treacle of sentimentality. Fortunately, Petrenko did not indulge himself, and he gave us the full, uncut version. His was a spirited interpretation of fine nuances in some superb orchestration with a sense of grandeur and opulence. Of course, there were the obligatory passages of lush and breath-taking lyricism – in the second movement in particular – which the strings delivered just right, but there was also good revelation of the dark and gloomy ideas lurking in the background. The clarinet was outstanding, announcing important moments of captivating beauty at various points and stretching the beginning of the Adagio to eternity.

Bonus of the evening was Sibelius’ Valse Triste, a “small” work to wind down after such monumental Rachmaninov.