Norwegian wonders with a Russian twist

On Tuesday night the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra completed its European tour celebrating its 100th anniversary with a splendid concert that swept off their feet the audience of the Barbican center. To showcase their strengths and qualities, the programme was astutely composed of Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan, Grieg’s piano concerto and Shostakovich’s 10th symphony, works that gave ample opportunities for the musicians of this orchestra to shine collectively and individually. The concert was conducted by their current chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko, and the solist in the Grieg concerto was the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.

It was a delight to hear this big European orchestra live, to admire the cohesion and discipline of these musicians and also their sheer enthusiasm and happiness at playing music to together. Something that I noticed at the very beginning of the concert is that the musicians arrived together on stage, as one collective body, which was the first time I saw that, and they remained standing up until the concert master, Elise Båtnes arrived one or two minutes later. They only started tuning up after her arrival. I found that quite striking because it showed how strong the bond with each other is inside the orchestra. During the concert they seemed to play as one collective body of musicians, playing together, listening to each other very carefully, and breathing together, and they were following Petrenko with a lot of respect, trust and discipline too.

This very strong discipline was very obvious in the first piece, Don Juan, which was given a very driven, carefully built-up and sweeping performance. The sound of the orchestra is full-bodied and rich, with dense, luscious strings, that are not unlike the string sections of Russian orchestras in their massiveness, luminous and sharp woodwinds, plush and husky brass, and powerful percussions. Of all the orchestras I have heard recently, it’s one of the densest and most powerful. There is something very dense, without being thick, and quite massive in the tutti. The conductor’s interpretation was, as always with Vasily Petrenko, extremely organic and structured, all the contrasting episodes being clearly defined, the phrasing remarkably sculpted and the episodes were linked to each other by carefully built transitions. His vision of Don Juan is full of heroism, but also quite melancholic, and even fierce and he seems to look for lines of flights in the music, his Don Juan being a man on the run rather than a sensual seducer, which naturally leads him to his fateful demise.

Then came one of most beautiful interpretations of Grieg’s piano concerto by Leif Ove Andsnes, a romantic interpretation of this music, not because it was full of pathos and effects, but because it was deeply melancholic and poetic. It was a very thoughtful and rigorously constructed performance of a concerto that is much too often played as a grand gesture, but without much soul. The cadenza at the end of the first movement was a magical moment, so nuanced and refined, so deeply melancholic, that for the first and only time in the concert the orchestra lost some of its cohesion after the cadenza and at the beginning of the second movement. I felt that they too were kind of lost in the pianist very movingly beautiful and refined performance. The adagio was a magical moment, so light and ethereal, that it felt like the pianist and the orchestra were floating on a cloud. The last movement was in contrast full of bravura and heroism, but without any histrionics. As an encore Leif Ove Andsnes played the Lyric piece n°2, book 5, op. 54 by Grieg.

As far as I am concerned the highlight of the concert, the reason why I travelled from Paris, was to hear Vasily Petrenko conduct Shostakovich’s 10th symphony. Ever since I heard the very impressive recording he made with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic orchestra, I wanted to hear him conduct this work in concert. The intensity of Tuesday night’s performance reminded me of a performance of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony by Semyon Bychkov in Paris in February 2018. Petrenko is younger than Bychkov, but being born in 1976 he grew up in the last decades of the Soviet Union, before witnessing the fall of the regime and living through the extremely chaotic and violent period of the 1990s. Russian conductors like Bychkov or Petrenko know about fear, like every musician who have lived and grown up in the Soviet Union, and fear is also at the heart of Shostakovich’s work, especially his 10th symphony, which was written just after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953.

But does it mean that the average concert-goer who hasn’t been through that harrowing experience of living in a totalitarian regime or dictatorship cannot reach any deep emotional understanding of Shostakovich’s tenth symphony ? I don’t think so. There are many occasions in one’s life when one encounters some sort of fear, which is a natural psychological reaction that you feel in case of danger, and unfortunately there are also many people who, like me, live with anxiety, suffer from panic attacks and have an even deeper understanding of what it means to live with fear on a daily basis.

I have had a theory on Shostakovich’s 10th symphony for many years, which is that it is a symphony that more or less mirrors the structure of a panic attack. The first movement marked « Moderato » is the moment anxiety starts surging, and progressively through waves becomes overwhelming, the following movement marked « Allegro » is the climax of the panic attack, when you feel you’re going to die. The third movement marked « Allegretto » is that moment when you start fighting back, it’s a form of sarcastic dance with anxiety (although apparently this movement is actually a reference to Shostakovich’s unrequited love story with one of his students). The last movement marked « Andante-Allegro » is a the end of the panic attack, when you feel you have won the battle, emerge both exhausted and cheerful, but know deep down that you may have won the battle but the war is far from over.

So if I compare my vision of this symphony and the performance of the Oslo Philharmonic orchestra under the baton of Vasily Petrenko, it was a spot-on performance, that made me shed fountains of tears during three movements and left me shaken and uncertain at the end of the fourth movement. I also have the impression that the conductor’s vision of Shostakovich is becoming more and more quieter and ambiguous over the years. There was something deeply fragile about quietest passages in the first and third movement, as if life was hanging on a thread. This wasn’t a performance that was meant to be a showcase but rather a very cold-blooded approach that was utterly chilling, and the final movement didn’t sound utterly triumphant, it was filled with ambiguity.

The concert ended with two very loud encores, the first time during the concert during which I thought the orchestra was playing loudly, Grieg’s Norwegian Dance no. 2 and Katchaturian’s Gopak, as if the conductor and the musicians wanted to banish all the negative feelings aroused by the performance of Shostakovich’s performance. It was boisterous end to a splendid concert that clearly established the Oslo Philharmonic orchestra as one of the world’s greatest orchestras.

PS: there have been some excellent reviews of this concert that are more than worth reading :

Oslo Phil/Petrenko review – glorious Grieg in centenary celebrations

Norwegian flair and Andsnes’ formidable technique light up the Oslo Philharmonic’s centenary tour

Andsnes, Oslo Philharmonic, Petrenko, Barbican review – polish and passion

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