BBC SSO / Dausgaard
City Halls, Glasgow
What began as an inspired return, following a lengthy absence from the BBC SSO by its principal conductor Thomas Dausgaard, took a tumble in the second half with a Brahms concerto that defied its potential.
The soloist in Thursday’s concert was Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov, outspoken last week against his country’s invasion of Ukraine, whose musical brawn, by its hefty physicality, is ideally suited to Brahms’ heavy-duty First Piano Concerto. But this was not a comfortable performance, Melnikov’s moments of focused composure – which were many – interrupted by bouts of unsteadiness.
It wasn’t solely Melnikov’s fault. Dausgaard clearly had his own vision of the work, a determination to over-egg its expressive purpose to the point of aggravating the solo line. Aspects of balance were mismanaged, some of the woodwind tuning in the slow movement warranted better attention, though the finale did inject late promise of lively conciliation. But Brahms wasn’t the outright winner.
How different things were in the first half. In an affectionate gesture towards the awful plight of Ukraine, Dausgaard inserted an unplanned concert opener, a gently rocking serenade movement from Stille Musik by the 84-year-old Kyiv-born composer, Valentin Silvestrov. It was simple and idyllic.
Then to the official programme, and a fascinating juxtaposition of early Bartok and late Nielsen. The big attraction here was Nielsen’s final symphony, his Sixth, subtitled “Sinfonia semplice”, anything but a simple symphony other than the hypertensive transparency and brittle economy of its textures. Beyond that, it is enigmatically, often brutally, eccentric, like musical graffiti.
That surely appealed to Dausgaard, whose strategy was to exaggerate its extremes. So the insistent, repetitive recurrence of the glockenspiel was as pointedly irritating as it was charmingly whimsical, the acerbic grotesqueness of the Humoreske reeked of vicious mockery, while at the other end of the spectrum, Nielsen’s fresh, elusive lyricism poked through to reveal an underbelly of warmth. The performance had its cliff-edge moments, but rarely failed to thrill.
The Bartok couplet, his Two Portraits, was a helpful route towards that, opening with music adapted by the composer from his First Violin Concerto, and featuring resplendent solo playing by leader Laura Samuel. Built initially on a masterful long-range crescendo, the impact of this SSO performance was powerful and ultimately luxurious, before being cast aside by the tomfoolery of the second Portrait.
Recorded for BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, then available for 30 days via BBC Sounds