Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Leeds Town Hall, Saturday 8th March 2019

A CAPACITY audience warmly applauded the nearly ninety musicians of the Oslo Philharmonic as they filed on to the stage of Leeds Town Hall. Eighteen years have passed since their last (unforgettable) Leeds concert, conducted by Manfred Honeck. Current principal conductor Vassily Petrenko is, of course, well known to Leeds audiences as music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture Romeo and Juliet unfolded with pristine freshness under Petrenko’s baton. Burnished horns and silken woodwind embellished the tonal depth of the strings built on eight double basses and ten cellos. The big climaxes were impassioned, even sensual in the love music, but never cloying in their expression of grief in the final pages.

The Steinway grand piano was moved centre stage for one of the best loved concertos in the repertory. Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor featured in the orchestra’s inaugural concert on 27th September 1919.

Its illustrious present day counterpart was in complete empathy with the crystalline textures of Nikolai Lugansky. The Russian pianist’s poetry in the central adagio movement created a sound world of enchantment - an arresting contrast with his mercurial brilliance in the fast outer movements.

Sergei Rachmaninov ominously prefaced the opening page of his doom laden Symphony No 1 in D minor with the line “vengeance is mine, I shall repay”. The symphony was never performed again in his lifetime following its under-rehearsed 1897 premiere, conducted by the inebriated Alexander Glazunov. True, the 45 minute-long work can sound rough hewn but the Oslo Philharmonic’s needle-point unanimity of attack, the mahogany richness of the orchestra’s playing and Petrenko’s way of shaping the soaring romantic climaxes created a thrilling and ultimately rewarding experience. The swaggering brass fanfares, insistent snare drum and tambourine in the stirring finale will be familiar to older listeners as the instantly memorable theme for BBC TV’s Panorama. Elgar’s gently wistful Salut d’amore, played as an encore, was the perfect antidote to the the dramatic power of Rachmaninov’s volcanic early symphony.

Geoffrey Mogridge