The Oslo sound (2/2)

The sound of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra has changed quite a lot over its the first century of its existence. There is no recording of the orchestra existing before 1956, so it’s impossible to know what it sounded like at the beginning. The first recordings were made under the baton of Odd Grüner-Hegge and Øivin Fjeldstad, but are not always of the best quality. Nonetheless, if one listen to the 1956 recording of Wagner’s Götterdämerung by Øivin Fjeldstad, with the great soprano Kirsten Flagstadt, or if you listen to the following video of a 1961 concert performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Norwegian pianist Liv Glaser, it’s possible to analyse the evolution of the sound of the orchestra from the 1950s until now.

At that time, if you listen to this video, and look closely, you can hear that the sound of string was at the time relatively light and clear, but the string section lacked the cohesion, power and discipline it would acquire later on. Of course, the musicians played together, but not in a totally blended way. The woodwinds had pastel-coloured sounds, and yet could also become sometimes a little shrill. The brass section had a somewhat luminous sound, which could at times turn snarling and pungent. In spite of Herbert Blomstedt’s perfectly balanced and intelligent conducting, one can say that the orchestra was at the time a very professional orchestra with a good solid sound identity, but it wasn’t an orchestra that could compete with the world’s greatest orchestras.

Then the arrival of Mariss Jansons in 1979 turned out to be the turning point in the history of the orchestra, a Russian ‘revolution’ as one of the musicians of the orchestra said in a documentary showing the Latvian conductor rehearsing Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin with the musicians of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in 1997. As Andrew Mellor explained in a recent article about the centenary of the orchestra:

‘Jansons took the orchestra apart, worked on every section of it individually, and put it back together again to make one of the most formidable and charismatic orchestral ensembles in the world. Audiences started to encounter the orchestra’s silky, focused string sound and smooth-blend brass and winds, even in performances that transcended those qualities. Jansons initially schooled the orchestra in Russian repertoire: first Tchaikovsky (with a series of recordings still discussed today), then Stravinsky and Shostakovich.’

Born in Riga in a family of musicians, as his father, Arvids Jansons, was also a conductor and his mother, Iraida Jansone, was an opera singer, the young Mariss Jansons had been trained at the Leningrad Conservatory, before going to Vienna to train with Hans Swarowsky and had been spotted by Herbert von Karajan while he was training in Salzburg. Unfortunately for him, the Soviet authorities denied him the right to become Karajan’s assistant. Fortunately for Oslo, his father told the orchestra, which he had conducted several times in the 1970s, that his son was a very talented conductor and suggested the orchestra should invite him. This was the perfect move for this ambitious young conductor and this young orchestra as Jansons recently explained in an interview to Bachtrack :

‘The orchestra was young and I was young and we were very enthusiastic. We worked very hard and were very successful – it became one of the leading orchestras in Europe and we did a lot of wonderful recordings together. I conducted a very broad repertoire, helping them to develop from a provincial orchestra into a very good one.’

If you compare the video above, which shows Jansons at the beginning of his collaboration with the Oslo Philharmonic orchestra and the Tchaikovsky cycle they recorded together for Chandos, you can easily hear the difference in quality of the orchestral sound, which is much denser, more blended, because of the very hard work on the cohesion, more nuanced and more polished. The woodwinds sometimes seem to float in the air, with such softness and delicacy that it quite miraculous, while they can also sound as sharp as arrows when needed. The string section sounds sharper in their attacks, more ‘silky’ and warmer than they used to, and overall they have more ‘horse power’. The brass sound smoother and leaner, and the percussion have more presence. When Jansons left the orchestra in 2002, he had turned this regional orchestra into a world-class orchestra.

After Jansons, the Oslo Philharmonic orchestra worked briefly with American conducting legend André Previn from 2002 to 2006, but Previn was ailing and tired at the time, and although the musicians have very fond memories from their collaboration with him, it is difficult to assess the influence he had on the orchestra. After Previn, the orchestra apparently wanted a conductor with a firmer grip and a tighter discipline, more like Jansons therefore, and they thus chose Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste.

As you can hear in this remarkable performance of Sibelius’s 5th symphony, Saraste is very rigorous and precise conductor who knows how get tight discipline from an orchestra, but also managed to draw more orchestral colours from the Oslo Philharmonic orchestra. Personally I think there is an intensity and vibrancy in Saraste’s conducting that makes the orchestral sound leaner, a little rougher on the edges and more colourful, in a kind of cold Nordic kind of way.

So what about the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra nowadays ? In 2019 the orchestra has celebrated its 100th anniversary with its current chief conductor, the Russian Vasily Petrenko, who was born in Leningrad and was trained in the same conservatory as Mariss Jansons by one of the greatest teachers of conducting, Ilya Musin, and who followed a masterclass by Mariss Jansons in his youth. Under the baton of Vasily Petrenko the orchestra has continued developing its sound and maintained a very tight discipline, as most of its musicians became members of the orchestra during the Jansons era, but the sound of the orchestra has become somehow denser, more Russian, especially in the string section, whose sound is particularly warm and luscious, especially the viola section. The woodwinds both have an amazing collective sound, either soft and ethereal, or sharp and piercing as in the vivid recording performance of Richard Strauss’s Heldenleben recently released, and a lot of individual character every time one of them has to play a solo. The brass section sound both lean and full-bodied, but also husky and burnished when needed. And it may seem paradoxical but he has also both the transparency and the fierceness in the sound of the orchestra, which is now able to play in the most refined and delicate manner in the quietest musical moments and very aggressively in stormy musical passages.

One cannot know in what direction the next chief conductor of this beautiful orchestra will lead its musicians, but one thing is certain is that the young Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä is very lucky to have been chosen to conduct this magnificent orchestra.

Photo: CF Wesenberg

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