First published in The Herald on 17 August, 2015
Two nights, two Nordic folk epics. The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra began its stay at the Edinburgh International Festival with Grieg’s music for the Ibsen play Peer Gynt. The previous night we heard Sibelius’s Kullervo from Edward Gardner and the RSNO. The performances were worlds apart: the Sibelius a fiery romp, a gush of Finnish patriotism; the Grieg lithe, pristine, chiselled, archetypical.
The 39-year-old Vasily Petrenko has been chief conductor of the Oslo orchestra since 2013 and already the command and precision he has established is breathtaking. There are no frills, no accidents with Petrenko. His great long arms shape every bar, every beat, every chord just so. It’s fastidiously clean orchestral playing that still includes room for expansive expression — his slow tempos are very slow, and the melodies of Morning and Solveig’s Song were deep-felt and sensual with gorgeously blended accompaniments. The string articulation in Anitra’s Dance was so light it was almost iridescent. The selection of movements ended, inevitably, with In the Hall of the Mountain King, music Grieg himself said reeked “cowpats, exaggerated Norwegian nationalism and trollish self-sufficiency”. Petrenko’s way around those satirical trolls was to treat them with ultra-crisp attack, absolutely po-faced.
Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony unfolded with the same acutely calculated balance of refined detail and frank, generous expression. The Adagio was hushed, weightless and unhurried — huge credit to the clarinettist’s lung capacity. Petrenko has recorded this symphony with the Royal Liverpool Phil (his other orchestra) and the differences are telling. This Oslo performance was less volatile, less earthy, more polished, more technically impressive — but ultimately less moving.