fri 18/10/2019

Prom 40: BBCSSO, Dausgaard | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 40: BBCSSO, Dausgaard

Prom 40: BBCSSO, Dausgaard

Launching the Sibelius symphonies, unorthodox Dane raises the First to the level of the rest

Thomas Dausgaard: animated narrativesChris Christodoulou for the BBC

From Sakari Oramo’s riveting Nielsen symphonies at the Barbican to Thomas Dausgaard kicking off the Proms’ Sibelius cycle, the two Nordic immortals are well served in their 150th birthday year. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, whose reins Dausgaard takes over from the great Donald Runnicles in 2016, may not have the sheer heft of the Berlin Philharmonic strings we heard earlier this year in Rattle’s Sibelius. But the Glasgow-based players get much deeper under the skin, and prove so much lighter on their feet when the Danish conductor takes flight. Sibelius’s hard-to-handle treasury of riches in the First Symphony has never, in my experience, sounded fresher or more coherent.

Inevitably, the three days had to kick off with Finlandia, so untypical of things to come and about as revealing of the real Sibelius as Pomp and Circumstance is of Elgar’s heart and soul. Only one of the symphonies begins loud, the Fourth, and that’s with an extraordinary mix of bassoons with muted cellos and basses. But here we had the full brass snarls ricocheting around the Albert Hall, as smooth and legato as Dausgaard could make them, and the horns taking a while to settle. The great tune lilted without sentimentality, a hallmark of Dausgaard’s winged approach.

Dausgaard and BBCSSO at the PromsEnter the First Symphony in total, quiet contrast: nothing but a drum roll with a bardic clarinet solo over it that, in the consummate hands of Yann Ghiro, withdrew into total introspection once the timpani had stopped. With the adventure under way, every idea is inspired but many are oddly placed;  Dausgaard fused them into a fluent, unpredictable adventure. The BBC Scottish Symphony strings can really inscape their music, as we heard in Runnicles’ masterly Mahler Fifth the other week; they did so here at the start of the slow movement. A brilliantly fast but always articulate scherzo flew headlong into the cry of a wounded heart which kicks off the fantasia-finale – also light on its feet, hurtling to disaster with only the big Tchaikovsky tune in its way. Utterly brilliant from first note to last.

The same crucial suppleness set its seal on Sibelius’s first properly integrated movement, the Allegretto which dances the Second Symphony into life. The approach here and in the sweeping melody of the finale was as febrile as that of Sibelius’s preferred interpreter, Robert Kajanus. But Dausgaard also plumbed the depths as the skies darken at the centre of that opening movement, its key phrase always articulately turned (more difficult than it seems; you can't say the same of many recorded interpretations).

The sustained heart and soul was the slow movements, where atmosphere triumphed over two near-disastrous lapses of ensemble. Sibelius himself suggested the image of the Stone Guest and Don Juan, but preparing for a study day on Sibelius’s music yesterday I came across an old recording of a Finnish runic folk singer where the melody of her refrain has identical turns of phrase to the lugubrious bassoon song. If that was majestically projected here, the way trumpeter Mark O’Keeffe handled a couple of phrases in the refrain brought tears to the eyes. There’s much about Dausgaard’s way that flashes past, but you know when you’ve got to the essence of Sibelius’s dark soul. Ilan Volkov, taking over the baton and the orchestra tonight, is bound to reveal more of it in the Fourth Symphony.

Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts from the BBC Proms

Every idea is inspired but many are oddly placed; Dausgaard fused them into a fluent, unpredictable adventure

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I myself wasn't entirely happy with the 1st symphony last night. I thought the brass section were too harsh and/or loud to go well with the very smooth and mellow strings. Also, in a couple of passages the whole thing sounded quite porridge-y. The 2nd was much better, quite good in fact. Or maybe it was just more suited to the BBCSSO's style and sound. PS: The first time I've seen Dausgaard live - he looked like a big band leader in his white jacket and swaying hips. :)

As always with the slippery Albert Hall acoustics, it depends on where you're sitting/standing, Sibbe. Nothing porridge-y from my perspective but it's always a fight to keep everything clear and together (in fact the few loosenesses of ensemble came in the Second Symphony).

I sat dead centre of the stalls, straight across from the orchestra. I would have thought there the location was the least of a factor? But yes, I take your point about the RAH acoustics, of course.

Oh dear. I found this rather dreadful. I'm not sure if Dausgaard just doesn't like Sibelius, or if he had a flight to catch or something, but he seemed to be trying to set a new record for everything last night. It might have worked (although I still would have missed the sense of space that I love in Sibelius) if he had a firm enough grasp of basic technique to keep the orchestra together at that tempo, but I'm afraid his barely coordinated flailing around obviously gave the players little to work with. The inevitable effect was a general lack of togetherness interspersed with a couple of disastrous moments where the orchestra were not even on the same beat. That can happen with amateur orchestras, but if it happens with good professionals you have to lay it firmly at the door of the conductor. He kept the brass quiet for most of the symphonies, and then had them let rip in a way that was just grating, when it should have been organic. Talking to a member of the orchestra in the bar afterwards, they didn't seem to be very impressed, and it sounds like they are not looking forward to his tenure. I don't blame them.

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