How do you draw out Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, a piece lasting just over thirty minutes, so it takes up a full hour? I wasn’t sure before last night, but the Oslo Philharmonic and Vasily Petrenko provided some suggestions. For starters, you could walk on late – odd, for a normally exceedingly punctual orchestra – and then you could have the conductor speak about the piece for almost ten minutes.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

The latter, at least, was expected. This performance was the second in this season’s Kort & klassisk series, in which the orchestra showcase a single piece chosen from the repertoire they’ll play the day after as part of a full-length concert. Each offering in this series, translated into English as Classical Hour, is prefaced by an on-stage introduction. Petrenko generally says a few words at the start of standard-length concerts, so is no stranger to public speaking. His dry sense of humour and commendable comic timing elucidated chuckles from audience and orchestra as he admitted to never having heard the music of Nietzsche, whose novel inspired Strauss’ tone poem of the same name, to say nothing of actually understanding the weighty musings for which the German philosopher is more famous.

Petrenko was nonetheless convinced that Also sprach Zarathustra had a lot to say to us, namely in the form of questions that are just as relevant now as they were when Nietzsche was writing. Who are we? Where are we going? Nietzsche seemed to know: his work charts the progress of humanity from its God-fearing origins to the goal of the Übermensch. By casting off otherworldly, religious aspirations, the Übermensch can focus on the joys of this life, rather than notions of the next.

Petrenko reminded us that Strauss’ music pays homage to Nietzsche’s ideas rather than directly rendering his work. The piece thus merits careful listening. Despite Nietzsche’s neat linear progression, Strauss does not provide definitive answers to the questions posed by the philosopher – that, nodded Petrenko, is up to us.

Also sprach Zarathustra begins with a pedal C in the double basses, contrabassoon and organ, a tectonic rumbling barely on the threshold of perception as if to show that we really are starting at the beginning of everything. What follows is inextricably linked to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In a neat correspondence of musical and cinematic imagery, Kubrick uses Strauss’ Sunrise fanfare to herald a new day breaking over the looming shadow of Earth in the unforgettable opening sequence. This introduction speaks well enough for itself without needing to be souped up for dramatic effect, and the orchestra managed to portray celestial grandeur while maintaining a touch of awe at their own clarion brilliance.

Nietzsche may have proclaimed that God is dead, but he reckoned without Petrenko. All of creation seemed to emanate from the man as he summoned vast worlds into being, holding them in magisterial wonder for our contemplation, before sending them spinning into the cosmos with a flick of the wrist. Like a great flock of starlings creating mesmerisingly coordinated patterns in the air, each string player moved as one, using every millimetre of their bows to add an impressive visual dimension to the auditory display. The organ blazed out its final C major chord in triumph before we were plunged back into the depths.

Particularly interesting in a work that begins by contemplating the vastness of space is how Strauss physically uses the large orchestra to generate exciting sonic and visual effects. This was well executed throughout, notably in “Von den Hinterweltlern” and “Von der Wissenschaft”, which have strings lines divided into desks to illustrate the progression and development central to Nietzsche’s novel. Romanticism surely peaks in the gushing lyricism of the former movement that nevertheless begins in an ominous low chromatic line, while the latter movement shifts the sound from the dodecaphonic fugue originating in the back desk of the basses to an almost sickly sweet melody in splashy harps and violins on the other side of the stage.

The woodwind failed to impress, with questionable intonation in “Von der großen Sehnsucht” and a mysterious lack of intensity throughout, especially compared to the brass: stormy tubas in “Nachtwanderleid” and rasping trombones in “Der Genesende” added compulsive depth. It did come together at the end, crystalline upper voices whistling a brilliant B major at the end of “Nachtwanderleid” and contrasting uneasily with dissonant trombones and thudding basses in a questioning C major. Nature and humanity are thus unresolved.

Petrenko reminded us that even the impenetrable Nietzsche was capable of saying something as clear as “life without music would be a mistake”. For all its philosophical credentials and conflicts, Also sprach Zarathustra is a simply a great piece of music. The Oslo Philharmonic should be proud of how they brought it to life.