Conductor Laureate Jukka-Pekka Saraste returned to the Oslo Philharmonic for the first time this season. It was readily apparent that it was a concert eagerly awaited by the public – Oslo Concert House was absolutely packed. Two seasons after his stepping down as Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, Saraste is still very popular with the Oslo audience. Yet Thursday’s concert was something of a disappointment, with performances of Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 bordering on the disengaged and distant.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste © WDR Thomas Kost
Jukka-Pekka Saraste
© WDR Thomas Kost

The concert started with Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, which is in many ways a hybrid between a symphony and a concerto, with the piano often becoming an integrated part of the orchestral texture, often not standing out as a soloist. The piece originally started out as a two-piano sonata, then turned into a symphony before finally assuming the form of a piano concerto.

The first movement started out with a majestic first subject, with Saraste conjuring a wonderfully homogenous, yet dramatic sound from the strings. Soloist Yefim Bronfman played with authority, yet there was little variety or excitement to be found – neither with the soloist, nor with the orchestra. The second movement started out a little fast, although the tempo did stabilise after a while. Throughout the movement, I would have liked Bronfman to play with a more delicate attack, unfurling more of the lyrical character of this movement. As it was, it was a touch too brutal. As the movement progressed, he blended wonderfully with the orchestra as the piano part took on a more accompanying role. There was, however, some intriguing intonation in the woodwinds.

There was a wonderful sense of fun in the third movement, with the music suddenly changing from dramatic and almost folk music-like to wonderfully lyrical. Bronfman’s piano playing was utterly brilliant, especially in the faster parts of the rondo. Sadly, as in the second movement, the woodwind intonation was dubious at best, especially in the solos.

For the second piece of the concert, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, the entire hall was plunged into near darkness. The orchestra took on a completely new character and sounded a lot more engaged than it had been during the Brahms. The low strings were wonderfully brooding at the start of the first movement, and there was some very good tutti playing from the violas. Saraste brought out a wonderful contrast as the dark and stormy first subject gave way to the light and lyrical second subject. Throughout the first movement, the sense of anguished frustration and anger was palpable. There was, however, imprecise playing from the brass. The trumpets, trombones and tuba were placed very far from the rest of the orchestra, something that might very well have led them to lag behind the rest of the orchestra. Luckily, it got better as the symphony progressed.

The second movement was wonderfully elegant, with especially good playing from the cellos in the very opening. Saraste emphasised the dance-like character of the movement, bringing out the elegance rather than the eccentricity of this lopsided waltz. The third movement, with its bustling strings and march-like theme, was impressively transparent, the many, very busy parts, always being audible and not descending into a muddled chaos as this movement is wont to do. However, there was a lack of jubilation and triumph, especially towards the end. This movement, as it so often does, was still applauded, but instead of ignoring the applause, Saraste waited until it had died down before continuing with the fourth movement.

The transition from the fast, jubilant third movement to the slow, introverted and lyrical fourth is in many ways the emotional heart of this symphony and some of the magic was lost when Saraste took that extra long break. The movement also lacked some of the searing intensity it needs, especially in the opening string theme. What is one of the most emotional movements in classical music suddenly seemed cold and distant.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste is a very popular conductor in Oslo. It is disappointing, then, that his first concert of the season should comes across as so seemingly disinterested.