Thursday’s concert with the Oslo Philharmonic and Vasily Petrenko, the last of the season, in a way managed to serve as a summary. The concert was the final instalment of the Philharmonic’s project to play all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos, and also the second in the orchestra’s survey of Scriabin’s orchestral pieces. While the Beethoven didn’t fully convince, the Scriabin packed a punch.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Hearing Beethoven played with a modern-sized, large orchestra, seems to be something of a novelty these days. The music of Beethoven may not have been entirely taken over by specialist ensembles – like so much of the music that came before him has – but after this Fifth Piano Concerto, I remembered why I prefer orchestras playing this repertoire to be just a touch smaller. Despite its size, the orchestra sounded strangely underpowered, especially in the first movement. This movement also suffered from balance issues, the winds often rendered inaudible by the strings and piano. Still, the movement had much to commend it, most notably the piano playing of Paul Lewis, being able to switch from almost brutal majesty to ethereal lightness in the blink of an eye.

The second movement was one of peaceful simplicity, the orchestra faring considerably better than in the preceding movement. After a very drawn-out transition to the third, the tempo picked up, although the orchestra seemed to struggle to keep pace with Lewis. Petrenko’s Beethoven came across as blunt and just a little bit bloated, lacking in impact and momentum, in sharp contrast to the majestic playing of the soloist. With Petrenko, there was temperament, but always cloaked in velvet. Beethovenmania is far from over in Oslo: in only a few months, Petrenko will be leading a survey of all nine symphonies over the course of two weeks. If he didn’t quite convince as a Beethovenian this time round, another opportunity is coming up very shortly.

As an encore, Lewis offered up an untitled, late piece by Liszt, introduced by himself as “something short”. While it certainly was short – it couldn’t have been much longer than 30 seconds – it also provided just the amount of pre-interval bliss.

Scriabin’s Second Symphony was premiered in St Petersburg in 1902, and suffered an unfairly poor reception: the composer Anton Arensky remarked in a letter to Sergei Taneyev that, with its many intensely chromatic passages, the work should not have been called Scriabin’s Second Symphony, but rather his “Second Cacophony”. It is not as weighed-down by spiritual ecstasy and orgasmic rapture, nor as overpowering, as his later works, but the trademark climactic phrasing is very much there. Formally, the symphony is quite conservative and Petrenko didn’t seem quite as comfortable with the music as he did when he conducted the Third and Fourth Symphonies. This performance of the Second was recorded and will be released along with the piano concerto as part of Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic’s ongoing survey of Scriabin’s orchestral works.

Opening with woodwinds rising up from murmuring, low strings, the first movement gave Petrenko ample opportunity to show his ability to form phrases and an astonishing sense of pacing, every climax more powerful than the next. The first and second movements are played attacca, the first movement Andante being more of a slow introduction (if lengthy) to the second movement Allegro. Still, however carefully Petrenko paced the movement, I couldn’t help but be disappointed at the very matter-of-fact ending, but that’s surely more Scriabin’s fault than anyone else’s.

The pastoral third movement suffered initially with the flute solo being both flat and at times inaudible through the sea of strings in front of it, by no fault of the strings. Luckily, the solo flautist redeemed himself when the solo was repeated towards the end of the movement. The fifth and final movement, even acknowledged by the composer as banal, does stand out rather awkwardly – a half-hearted, oddly cheery procession and not the blinding apotheosis Scriabin so often strived for. Petrenko and the orchestra attempted to inject the movement with a semblance of transcendence, but despite some very creditable playing, especially from the woodwinds and solo cornet, they never managed to overcome the movement’s weaknesses.