EIF 2015 review: Oslo Phil 2

First published in the Guardian on 17 August, 2015

Vasily Petrenko’s stony expression spoke volumes. He had just conducted the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in a dauntless account of Sibelius’s First Symphony, every theme unfolded with steel-clad logic. The Scherzo had been acrid, the Andante haunted and soul-searching. The closing bars were so weighty, so intensely loaded, that they implied not only the inescapable doomed heroism of the symphony’s cyclical arch but also the start of something altogether bigger: a grave upbeat to Sibelius’s whole symphonic future with all the desolate and wondrous places it would lead. Into this ultra-charged moment came a smattering of hasty clapping which fizzled into excruciatingly awkward silence before the applause proper began. Petrenko was not amused, though he did cheer up enough to deliver a pair of deadpan encores: Sibelius’s Valse triste and a razor-sharp, caustic romp through Grieg’s In The Hall of the Mountain King.

Two concerts at the Edinburgh International Festival have shown the Oslo Phil to be in very fine shape indeed. Clarity was what stood out most: lucid textures, ultra-clean articulation, phrasing sculpted out of ice and granite. Petrenko has been at the helm since 2013, and he appears to have found an ideal match for his forensic precision and high-definition lines.

It was a shame that half of the second concert was wasted on iffy programming. The players gave all the bite and spirit they could to seven numbers from A Hundred Hardanger Tunes by the Norwegian far-right nationalist Geirr Tveitt, but that lurid colouring and naff folk appropriation can never amount to much. Nicola Benedetti made plenty of the big, burnished melodies in Glazunov’s syrupy Violin Concerto but was less at home in skittish passages. Her presence guaranteed the hall was full, but this didn’t seem quite the right concerto or the right night.