How do you define calmness? Asking Pärt, Strauss and Shostakovich, you get three different answers: meditative simplicity; nostalgic reflection; terrifying unease. With works by those three composers on the programme, the stage was set for a solid performance by the Oslo Philharmonic under Stefan Solyom.

Stefan Solyom © Tony Briggs
Stefan Solyom
© Tony Briggs

Pärt’s Fratres is captivating despite its simplicity, and this rendition of the 1983 version for strings and percussion is no exception. The strings would later prove to be murderously effective in frantic unison during the Shostakovich, but here was a chance to enjoy the unique timbres of the four instruments that make up the section, thanks to an admirable balance as the lower voices were added and the volume increased. Mellifluous violas and chesty cellos brought out rich lines that were no less lyrical than the transparent interplay between first and second violins that opened the piece, all eventually underscored by sonorous double basses.  

In Strauss’ Vier letzte Liede, a setting of three poems by Hermann Hesse and one by Joseph von Eichendorff, this balance was sadly lost. The orchestra failed to match Lise Davidsen’s powerfully clarion soprano during Frühling, and then managed to obscure her glorious, herculean phrasing in the latter movements. Davidsen was just as impressive up in gleaming heights as she was in a pleasingly dark lower register in nostalgic September; but there was frustratingly little connection between her and Solyom, the latter’s unemotional stage presence at odds with Strauss’ sensuous treatment of the texts. Nonetheless, a bewitching violin solo depicting the soul’s flight to heaven in Beim Schlafengehen and evocatively trilling flutes in the mountain twilight of Im Abendrot ensured that it was not only Davidsen who did justice to Strauss’ achingly beautiful reflections on the end of life.

It was a different kind of calm that pervaded as distantly rumbling timpani and ominously tolling harps murmured under cold strings, moving slowly but inevitably onwards. This sense of inevitability pervades Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 11 in G minor, a vast programmatic work in four movements played with no pauses. Ostensibly a memorial to the peaceful demonstrators mown down by the tsar’s soldiers in St Petersburg on Bloody Sunday in 1905, and lauded in turn by the Soviet authorities, it can also be seen to respond to events around the time of its composition in 1957, not least the Hungarian Revolution of the preceding year. This popular uprising had been brutally quashed by the victors of the Russian Revolution that was sparked by Bloody Sunday. As ever with Shostakovich, ambiguities remain – perhaps he was critiquing not one, but two regimes unlike in ideology but both unsurpassed in their inhumanity and thus doomed to crumble eventually.

The vast bleakness of “Palace Square” gave way to an equally immense second movement, increasing in intensity that reflected the desperation of the starving demonstrators, portrayed to hair-raising effect by wailing and weeping woodwind that brought an icy chill over the auditorium. A return to the nauseous calm of the first movement was soon punctuated by sharp bursts on the snare drum as the first shots were fired. The strings were furiously intense in the turbulent fugue that began this harrowing section, fingers and bows blurring into dissonant confusion that still remained brutally piercing. Under more anguished screaming from stratospheric woodwind and violins, lower strings and brass rasped scales and glissandi that stank of pure horror in the already hellish scene.

Pity the first few rows of the choir stalls behind the stage, forced to clamp hands to ears as the percussion section began firing on all cylinders, hammering down into the rest of the orchestra which was howling in abject fear. I defy anyone not to be affected by the sheer noise and dread of this terrifying section.

A return to previous stillness in the third movement was somehow more overwhelming because of what preceded it. Dull lower string thuds offered some time for reflection before a funereal viola melody emerged and grew increasingly urgent and searching – a return to the clarity and balance of the Pärt, but in a very different context. Out of the deathly quiet burst a jolting march section that begins the fourth movement. The strings spat and stabbed at their thunderous downbows, churning out quavers that blurred into a haze of bitter sound matched by the military precision of the brass.

I was disappointed that after the plaintive cor anglais solo, the ringing bells that give this movement its subtitle ‘Tocsin’ were drowned out by the surging orchestra, who were absolutely entitled to be as loud as they were – one set of tubular bells is manifestly not enough! That the stunned audience did not immediately burst into cathartic applause once the last chord was deadened is a tribute to the orchestra’s interpretation of this monumental work.