I was not prepared for such excellence.
The last two years were big years for foreign ensembles coming to grace our concert hall. Truth be told, though, I’m sure there’s been a continuous string of five-star visitors, but it’s only been in the past few years here that I’ve mastered the navigation of things like ticketing systems, online reservations, season tickets, all in Chinese, no less, so I’ve been able to enjoy more programs and find out about them early enough to get myself tickets.
This is the first foreign ensemble of 2017, the last one being the Bavarian Radio Symphony at the end of last year. Seeing the Oslo Philharmonic for two nights in a row certainly piques one’s interest, but with Truls Mørk as featured soloist two nights in a row and stellar programs for each night, I’d been looking forward to this weekend for a while.
A quick search in my music library shows that of all the music I own, the only recording I have from the Oslo Philharmonic is a recording of Elie Siegmeister’s third symphony (under the composer’s baton). That’s surprising for a number of reasons.
In any case, a Norwegian journalist and fellow concertgoer informs me before the concert begins that the Oslo Philharmonic is the highest-paid ensemble in Norway, which I did not know but would certainly assume is the case. We certainly had two big nights of excellent programming prepared.
The First Night
We started off the first evening with Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite no. 1, op. 46. Some pieces have reached their almost-cliché level of fame for a reason. The Grieg began the concert with an obviously Norwegian purpose, and there are those two major parts that everyone knows, the morning one and the mountain one. That aside, are listeners besides the more devoted music folk aware of the sheer beauty, the artistry that’s in this piece, the one that’s unfortunately relegated to sunrise or suspense scenes in commercials or cartoons? But played in full like it should be, one sees that this music is genius, capable of inducing chills throughout, especially when played with the finesse and delicacy that Petrenko and Oslo gave it. It was effortless, beautiful, pristine, natural fresh, but despite the powerful, intense ending, there was still a sense that this work was only the starter course, that there was still much more to come.
The biggest draw of the evening, by far, was to see Truls Mørk play the first Shostakovich cello concerto. I have his recording under Mariss Jansons and the London Philharmonic, and while it might not be everyone’s favorite, it’s the one I came to know the piece on, and I love it, so I was eager to hear him perform the work in the flesh. It’s a challenging piece, no doubt, and those who’ve never heard it might be perplexed by certain passages, like the long, pensive, cadenza, but it was a performance that bordered on transcendental, at least for me, and not just (but of course) from Mørk. The solo horn plays a big part in the work, and the orchestra played with an intensity that matched the soloist’s, an almost terrifying maniacal passion that left me almost catching my breath between movements. Works like this reminds us that the grotesque can be just as powerful, just as poignant, and even beautiful, as any major-key melody or pretty tune. Powerful stuff.
Mørk gave us two encores, the first a sarabande from one of Bach’s minor-key cello suites. Even after much applause and cheers and a sense of relief from the intensity of Shostakovich, the minor-key Bach seemed in the exact same spirit as the concerto we’d just heard, and it gave me pause. His second encore was Casals’ Song of the Birds, another very thought-provoking choice.
The second half, after the Norwegian work and the Russian work with a Norwegian soloist, was a symphony. I have to struggle to think of a composer (besides Grieg) who wrote symphonies (Grieg’s “suppressed” symphony aside), the only one coming to mind being Fartein Valen. So the symphony for the second half was one with which the ensemble and Petrenko all seemed completely at home, Rachmaninoff’s monstrous second symphony. It’s a big, Romantic, handsome work, full of breathtaking orchestral swells, rich string writing, color and expressiveness, and from beginning to end it was played pristinely.
I will say that this work is one that has always left me maybe wanting a little more (or perhaps something else) than it gives, but that has nothing to do with the performance, as Oslo’s reading is likely the best I’ll ever hear in person. It was really superb, with a different kind of seriousness than the Shostakovich, obviously, but an immense gravity nonetheless.
After the entire hour-long symphony (satisfyingly no cuts here!), the orchestra also gave us two encores. It was obvious to anyone who was paying attention that this would happen. During the intermission, a harp was rolled out to its place behind the violins, but upon the downbeat of the Rachmaninoff, it had no harpist. By the end of the Rachmaninoff, it still had no harpist. For the first encore, Sibelius’s Valse Triste, it still had no harpist. Sibelius’s melancholy, tender, beautiful waltz was played with shimmer and beauty, a refreshing glass of water after something so big and serious, but Petrenko returns to the podium and gauges the audience for another piece while a harpist scrambles to her chair. We respond sufficiently to his ‘louder’ gesture and he gives the downbeat for a folksy, intoxicatingly rhythmic, celebratory piece, and after the downbeat, he walks off the podium, around behind the violins, looking over a few players’ shoulders, and to the percussion section, where he picks up the tambourine. People are practically dancing at this point, smiles from ear to hear; a younger concertgoer in front of me, hands almost in the air, would have bumped shoulders with the people sitting on either side of him if they hadn’t left already. The piece finishes and the crowd goes wild. I’ve never seen anything like this in the concert hall and was dying to know what it was. The web editor of the Philharmonic was kind enough to reply to my message on Facebook. Here’s that second finale:
What a blast it was. Petrenko gave his final wave goodbye and the stand partners exchanged hugs and kisses with each other before leaving the stage. Wow… Now on to day two.
The Second Night
Night two found us beginning with Geirr Tveitt. If you haven’t heard that name before, and it’s likely you haven’t, then go read about how much music he wrote and how he lost almost all of it. The first part of the program was excerpts from 100 Folk Tunes from Hardanger, and even as excerpts, I’m sure they must be Taiwan premieres:
I. Going-a-wooing (Friar-foter) from Suite 4
II. You (Du) from Suite 4
III. Langeleik tune (Langeleiklåt) from Suite 1
IV.Hasty Wedding (Hastverksburdlaup) from Suite 1
V. Hardanger Ale (Haringøl) from Suite 4
But even as a set of excerpts, Tveitt’s music brims with color, with energy, with a classic, stunning Romantic beauty studded with the composer’s own personality and quirks. Brilliant concert opener, breathtaking already.
Last night’s highlight, for me, was the Shostakovich. Like I said, I came to know and love the piece from Mørk’s recording, and to hear him play it live was deeply powerful. The next concerto we got was Elgar. I’ve recently come to appreciate the Elgar concerto, and while it doesn’t reach into my soul like Shostakovich does, it’s a spiritual, introspective work, and Mørk’s performance was fully engrossing, Oslo’s reading rich and powerful, at once light and whimsical but also dark and brooding in all the right places.
After two more somber, pensive encores (no flashy caprices or anything here), we have an intermission, and then what I felt to be the highlight of the evening, but not until after I’d heard it.
I haven’t listened to Sibelius’s second symphony in ages. It’s one of those works that, once I came to know it, I felt satisfied enough that I’d gotten just about all it had to offer and wasn’t ever really drawn back for repeated listens.
I heard the work tonight refreshed, as if it suddenly meant something new, had become one of the most pristine, powerful symphonies ever written. This is in (small) part due to my absence from the work and assuredly having forgotten some of it.
The greater part, though, is that Petrenko’s reading and Oslo’s performance of the symphony, Sibelius’s longest, has solidly made it to my “that was a memorable, unforgettable experience” list, maybe even “one of the best things I’ve heard live” list.
Focus. Intensity. Passion. All of those words border on cliché-sounding, but the Sibelius we were served this evening was all of those things, and went so far beyond just technical excellence. The overall approach, the rich, crisp, golden, or white or deep blue colors of the brass, the strings, all of it. It was likely one of the most pristine, perfect performances of any piece I’ve heard live. Superb.
And I think I might have figured out what this underlying energy is, the sense of passion and intensity. It’s pride. That might sound like a negative virtue, but the musicians all seem focused, engaged, but more than anything, they seem to be enjoying themselves. It seems, from my fourth floor balcony, that they have a sense of pride in what they’re presenting, either from their fellow countrymen Grieg or Tveitt, or not (Rachmaninoff, Elgar, Shostakovich, Sibelius), and Petrenko seems endlessly proud of the ensemble, and all of that maybe un-musical sounding stuff, like camaraderie, sense of satisfaction/accomplishment, pride in your work, all of that comes through to make for absolutely stellar performances, and a flawless reading of the Sibelius was certainly the highlight of the evening.
But there was more Sibelius. We got Valse Triste again, which I was fine with, because it’s purdy and because my fellow concertgoer for the evening didn’t hear it last night. Second was Tchaikovsky’s Trepak from The Nutcracker, played at a rip-roaring, tons-of-fun pace, one of those things that brings a smile to the face.
It was an absolute stunning two days of concerts, a busy week, as you have seen, but one of the top things on my to do list is to see what Oslo Philharmonic recordings I can get my hands on. I’m serious. World-class stuff here, and I’d be very eager to see them again, and hope Petrenko stays with them for a long time. Tusen takk. Ser deg neste gang.