Thursday’s concert with the Oslo Philharmonic and conductor Vasily Petrenko marked the first in a multi-season survey of the orchestral pieces of Alexander Scriabin. With Brahms’ monumental Schicksalslied as the first piece, it was certainly a night for grand, sweeping orchestration. It may have taken some time to get the orchestra going, but the end result was very impressive indeed.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Fate) is one of his major pieces for choir and orchestra. The text is from Friedrich Hölderlin’s epistolary novel Hyperion, describing first the lives of the gods as an Elysian idyll. It then turns its gaze towards humanity, who is destined to suffer, walking blindly from one hour to the next, finally vanishing into oblivion. Petrenko’s approach to this piece was a controlled one, favouring softer dynamics, especially in the first part. This meant that the final, most dramatic section seemingly came out of nowhere, creating a rather disjointed performance. Petrenko’s controlled approach produced some breathtaking pianissimo moments, but it also served to confine the piece and left the final section lacking in drama.

The Oslo Philharmonic Choir, as so many other similar choirs, is somewhat on the top-heavy side; what it lacks in tenors and basses, it makes more than up for in sopranos. But, rather surprisingly, the choir was impressively balanced in this performance of Brahms’ Schicksalslied, perhaps partly owing to the mixed set-up they were using. In the final, most dramatic section, however, the sopranos took control, distorting the balance.

This somewhat lacklustre Schicksalslied gave way to repertoire both the orchestra and Petrenko seemed much more at home in: Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy) and his Symphony no. 3. Scriabin’s music is intensely colourful, with long, languorous phrases, growing ever more excited, even though the symphony suffers from occasional tendencies of long windedness. Scriabin’s later music, of which both the Poème de l’extase and the Symphony no. 3 are part, is characterised primarily by Scriabin’s philosophy, a near-religious adoration of art itself.

One of Vasily Petrenko’s big strengths as a conductor is creating orchestral soundscapes, a quality he showed off considerably with the colourful, sensual orchestration in the Scriabin pieces. I would, however have liked more strings in La Poème de l’extase’s many climaxes. The lack of sound seemed to be due to the unfortunate acoustics of the Oslo Concert House, but it stood out in particular as the sound balance was generally handled brilliantly.

Following La Poème d’extase in a concert programme is a tricky task; the ecstatic and gloriously loud final C major chord is one of those truly overpowering endings that cannot really be followed by anything other than applause and silence. Programming yet another piece, especially one of the size and scope of Scriabin’s Symphony no. 3, was perhaps not the best decision. Still, the performance of the latter had much to commend it.

The short introduction to the Third Symphony felt rather rushed. The dramatic opening motif lacked punch as a result, but the tempo in many ways anticipated the first movement proper. Petrenko emphasised the dance-like character of the movement, more demonic scherzo than swirling orchestral colours. The tempo certainly added a sense direction to a piece that sometimes overstays its welcome. It worked well, however, especially when paired with some very sensual oboe playing.

I wished for more transparency to hear the inner string voices better, but this is nitpicking. The strings played with a fullness they seemed lacking in The Poem of Ecstasy, and seemed to be working with a bigger palette of sonorities. The pieces’ substantial trumpet parts, which often soar above the entire orchestra, were played with a wonderful nobility and golden tone, and a surprising ease, considering the sheer length of the parts. Petrenko demonstrated his ability to stretch a crescendo and sustain tension throughout a musical idea to great effect in both of the Scriabin pieces. Softer dynamics would have been welcome to better contrast the frequent orgasmic eruptions of sound.

The Scriabin pieces were recorded as the first part of a complete cycle of Scriabin’s orchestral music, and judging from Thursday’s performance, there is a lot to look forward to.