Name a Norwegian composer. Well done. Now, name one whose last name doesn’t begin with G. Come on, I’m waiting! Poor Norway. Aside from that famous G, who would no doubt be horrified at how his Morning and Mountain King are now distilled as the musical essence of his country, it’s rather rare to hear the music of any other composers from this thin slice of Scandinavia. Your chances are slightly better on home turf, so when the Oslo Philharmonic presented a wholly Norwegian programme with pieces by Tveitt, Halvorsen and (of course) Grieg, I went gladly along, excited to discover a little more of the musical heritage of my adopted home.

Henning Kraggerud © Kaupo Kikkas
Henning Kraggerud
© Kaupo Kikkas

Geirr Tveitt was an eccentric collector of folk music who had some very original ideas about tonality – he thought modes were descended from Norse gods! Many of his compositions were lost in a tragic fire, but those that remain demonstrate that it is possible to be innovative and surprising even when in the realm of national music. Rarely heard outside Norway, Tveitt’s Hundrad hardingtonar is nonetheless his most recognised orchestral work, a playful setting of folk melodies from Hardanger (picture Norway in your mind’s eye: you’re thinking of the Hardangerfjord) that gives these old tunes a new life and vigour.

Petrenko chose to perform excerpts from the first and fourth suites, which fitted together to form a little narrative about a young couple. The boy runs to declare his love in Friarføter (literally proposal-feet); Du… is a tender love song, followed by a rather impromptu wedding in Hastverksbrudlaup, and finally a celebratory knees-up in Haring-øl (Hardanger beer) – the area has a strong brewing tradition. The whole was a fun romp, if a little polished for music so joyously rustic. Solo violin and oboe were wistful and even slightly haunting in the simple melodies of Du…, while Haring-øl was dominated by a Falstaffian brassy sound – no further comment needed, I think, given the boozy subject matter.

In 2015, there was quite the stir in the Norwegian music world when librarians at the University of Toronto found the score to Johan Halvorsen’s Concerto for Violin. Given Halvorsen’s penchant for destroying his own compositions (he was not a fan of this piece), it was assumed lost forever, and had not been heard for over a century! The concerto was quickly but meticulously prepared for performance by music researcher Per Dahl, and it was re-premiered at Risør Chamber Music Festival and at a music conference in Stavanger in June 2016.

Halvorsen’s Concerto for Violin is a Romantic tour de force, inspiring comparison with Dvořák and Bartók. Indeed, Bartók was a great fan of Halvorsen, and when he came to Oslo he tried to call on his idol who, it transpired, was too tired to meet him! The three movements place great demands on the soloist, not least the rhapsodic first movement, which is labelled ‘quasi una fantasia’. Soloist Henning Kraggerud gave a spirited interpretation of the piece, with an expressively soulful vibrato in the lyrical second movement, but his intensity was sadly not matched by the orchestra, especially in quieter moments. Petrenko excelled in whipping them up for bombastic fortissimos, but more consistency was required to keep the focus sharp in the third movement.

As a fitting encore, Kraggerud joined forces with the orchestra’s fabulous lead cellist Louisa Tuck to perform a jolly little folky theme with amusing dance-like variations that he himself had composed, which was received with due enthusiasm.

The auditorium’s huge projection screen had been lowered during the intermission, and we were treated to a promotional video for the Philharmonic’s 2017-18 season, narrated by a very enthusiastic Petrenko. The screen went back up, but the projector wasn’t switched off, its bright white bulb piercing through the prelude to Grieg’s Peer Gynt until someone ran up to switch it off. I was very impressed by violist Catherine Bullock’s cadenzas, which brimmed with the grit and zing that were missing in the Tveitt.

Petrenko chose to chop and change between the two Peer Gynt suites in the performance, ending on “In the Hall of the Mountain King” rather than the decidedly less exhilarating “Solveig’s Song”, which rounds off the second suite. The strings impressed throughout, notably with beautiful legato playing in “The Death of Åse” that Petrenko quietened to almost nothing, and precise pizzicati to match feathery bowing in “Anitra’s Dance”. The most famous movements, though, left me disappointed: a fluffed oboe solo in “Morning” and an overly orderly ending to “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. A slightly hotter fire in the belly of the orchestra would have made this a concert to remember for the performance, rather than the pieces.