There could hardly be a noisier way to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution than a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's mighty Twelfth Symphony. The composer had planned to write a work celebrating Lenin for decades, yet prevaricated until 1961, a year after joining the Communist Party. Subtitled The Year 1917, it's not exactly a subtle opus, being loud, overblown and symphonically weak. Yet given a performance of decibel-busting magnitude such as it received here from the Oslo Philharmonic and Vasily Petrenko, it still makes a great impression. Even if it does threaten to burst your eardrums.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Oslo Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Vasily Petrenko conducts the Oslo Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Shostakovich was just ten when Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown in March 1917 and witnessed violence on the streets of his native St Petersburg. In October, the Winter Palace was stormed and the Bolsheviks seized power from the provisional government. Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony – like its immediate predecessor, which focuses on The Year 1905 – has programmatic movement titles and employs snatches of revolutionary songs. But those movement titles here are vague, the music less cinematic than in the Eleventh. “Razliv” was the village where Lenin went into hiding, while “Aurora” references the cruiser on the River Neva from which the shot was fired to signal the Bolshevik assault on the Winter Palace.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Oslo Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Vasily Petrenko conducts the Oslo Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Oslo Philharmonic does fortissimo very well indeed. Heavy artillery percussion and ear-syringing brass dominated, the six percussionists going at it hammer and tongs, at least one sporting ear-plugs. Husky double basses rasped, a piccolo wailed. It was all conducted with supreme confidence and utter conviction by Petrenko, often with his baton held pointing away from the orchestra, marshalling his troops expertly. Yet there were occasional moments of subtlety too, the mournful bassoon in “Razliv” especially touching. Aside from a few smudged pizzicatos and brass blemishes, this was a terrific account. The encore, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, gingerly applied balm to bleeding ears.

The decibel meter was pretty active from the start of the concert. Stravinsky’s 1919 Suite from The Firebird often leaves you wanting more. At just 20 minutes, it’s little more than a patchwork quilt of edited highlights from the ballet, jerking from one episode to the next. It does offer the orchestra a strenuous workout though, and the Oslo Phil set out its stall impressively. Petrenko’s whiplash baton launched the Infernal Dance explosively, full of rhythmic bite and lewd trombone thrusts. Beckoned by Petrenko’s quivering fingers, the bassoon solo in the Berceuse lulled us into a state of repose before the famous finale made the Albert Hall quake.

Leif Ove Andsnes and the Oslo Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Leif Ove Andsnes and the Oslo Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

In between came a slightly curious performance of a slightly curious piano concerto. Rachmaninov’s Fourth is arguably his weakest, never quite coalescing, never quite offering us a big tune. It was written in 1926 after a long period of compositional inactivity forced upon the composer by trying to earn a living as a concert pianist. Leif Ove Andsnes finessed his way through the solo part, although more character was required in Rachmaninov’s more demonstrative moments. It was an odd performance to watch, Petrenko never once making eye contact with his soloist. A lack of rapport or a terrific degree of trust? Given the polished hand in glove results, it must be the latter, but it looked – if not sounded – chilly. Andsnes offered a gentle Sibelius encore, a nod to the centenary of Finnish independence in this concert mainly focused on revolutionary Russia.