Big band bursts at seams

Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, conductor, Reiko Watanabe, violin Tsuen Wan Town Hall, February 14, HK Cultural Centre, February 15.

UNFAIR as it might be, one can list the greatness of the Oslo Philharmonic in three words - passion, grace and logic.

Like Simon Rattle, Latvian-born Mariss Jansons has eschewed the ''glamour'' of a Soviet orchestra, reconstructing the provincial and once stodgy Oslo Philharmonic. Like Rattle, he has stayed with his orchestra, transforming it into one of the most eloquent in the world.

The works played the past two nights had grandiloquence that lived on passion. When combined with the grace of a most expressive conductor, and the logic which breeds musical unity, it was an almost holy experience.

Unlike other European orchestras, with their Solti/Karajan military precision, the Oslo had an honest warmth.

The opening Third Leonore Overture had an unceasing concentration. At no time did Jansons surrender to orchestral ''irrelevancies''. The Leonore had effortless phrasing, the melodies rising from the depths, the solo wind-playing a joy.

Besides the orchestra and conductor, Sunday's concert had the asset of Tsuen Wan Town Hall Concert Hall, by far the best in the territory.

For the Leonore , the offstage trumpet could be played with doors completely shut, but the clarity - both near and far - gave that all too rare spatial dimension to the music.

No better example of his art was given on Sunday for the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The rhythms were steady, the pace relatively brisk. But most essential, Jansons produced the rarest control of the crescendo.

This was not simply an increase in volume, but an actual richness of the orchestral colour. It was not simply the emotional excitement but the musical logic that was so moving.

For Jansons made the Seventh into a unified whole. At no time did he have to punctuate the rhythms. Rather, they pulsed through the entire work. The precision was inevitable rather than metronomic.

The Bruch Violin Concerto , repeated last night was played by the young Reiko Watanabe. Like her fellow artist Midori, Ms Watanabe is petite, shy-looking (her gold lame dress was in contrast to her rather mournful face), and she played like a demon.

A big sound, beautiful romantic phrasing, with an orchestra bursting at the seams to assure that the loveliness of the Bruch dominated the lugubriousness.

Also last night, Jansons presented Richard Strauss's sumptuous Also Sprach Zarathustra. It is all too easy to turn this work, after the 2001 introduction, into timpani and oil-can banging. But Jansons is no ordinary conductor.

The velvet strings, the percussion and the solo playing - cello and violin - turned the philosophical tone-poem into a work of the most sensual beauty.

One could regret that the waltz and dancing moments lacked that Central European lilt, or that the Cultural Centre acoustics distanced sound from audience.

But this is petty cavilling. What Jansons and his splendid orchestra accomplished was to take big romantic music and play it with all the passion - and musical architecture - that it deserved.