Proms Oslo Philharmonic Royal Albert Hall / Radio 3

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The Independent Culture
Welcome visitors to London for some years now, the Oslo Philharmonic took a two-day slot at this week's Proms, with Manfred Honeck replacing the orchestra's ailing music director, Mariss Jansons. Young, lithe and generous of gesture, Honeck is Viennese by training and Norwegian by association (he's music director designate of that country's National Opera). His biography says little about past relations with the orchestra. They seemed to be on good terms, none the less.

By chance, Sunday's programme also reflected Honeck's training as Abbado's assistant with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. Clearly no stranger to Mahler's Fifth, he drew from the Oslo players a sturdy account of the work that made for a fiery second half. There was no lack of character in the Scherzo and opening Funeral March, and a fine control of string tone made for an absorbing Adagietto that just failed by a whisker to deliver its payload of emotional catharsis.

The evening's lasting impression, however, was of Barbara Bonney singing five songs by Grieg. The sheer purity of voice and accompaniment touched several raw nerves. Mahler scales the heights, but Grieg tells of the world's transience in a hushed phrase; and, in terms of authentic Norwegian style, this orchestra is of course unbeatable.

Despite repeating the same three encores as on Sunday night, the Oslo Philharmonic ranged further afield the following evening, with Dvorak's New World symphony and Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Exposed entries in the Bartok were subject to certain lapses in attack, and not everything sounded as Hungarian as it might. In the fast second and fourth movements, Honeck's tempi were less than conducive to absolute coherence. The players were at their best in the slow movement, a fine example of the composer's "night music", a world of scurrying whisps of melody and hushed pizzicati of the kind that had proved so fetching in the Grieg the previous day.

In the Dvorak, too, the Philharmonic's account of the slow movement was full of shaded string tone and soft edges. The cor anglais melody lingered in the mind rather longer than the no less familiar American tunes in the first movement. But the entire body of woodwind and brass worked flat out in the home-grown product traditionally offered by visiting orchestras, Alfred Janson's Interlude. A violent 1980s polemic about a Norwegian spy case, it was one of those modern works - and there are many of them - in which massed strings strive ceaselessly against the rest while remaining inaudible. But ideas were strong, rhythmically acute and with a rewarding part for accordion. On this evidence, Janson's music has admirable qualities of directness and vigour; much like the Oslo Philharmonic, in fact.

NICHOLAS WILLIAMS

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