City Halls, Glasgow
The six-year relationship between the BBC SSO and its Danish chief conductor Thomas Dausgaard all but concluded last week. His last season concert – there are still some recordings and a final BBC Proms programme to come – also brought to an end Dausgaard’s valedictory project, a complete survey of Carl Nielsen’s six symphonies. Signing off with No 4, The Inextinguishable, was to go out with a blast.
There were two Nielsen symphonies in this programme, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Opening with the First took us to a place where the quintessential Danish composer was testing the water, but already armed with sufficient confidence to explore new and individualistic ground. Dausgaard’s opening gambit, grittily echoed by the SSO, was to embrace its ebullience and joyous intent, a gutsy start beyond which Nielsen’s fitful argument jockeyed between rage and reflection.
Fast forward to the concert climax and The Inextinguishable, cast in the same discursive mould, but which proved itself altogether mightier, meatier and mind-blowing in its universal message. If, indeed, it’s about the unquenchable affirmation of the human spirit, a cathartic resolution to life’s questioning and contradictory experiences, then that is no better expressed than in a ferocious peroration dominated by two battling sets of timpani.
Dausgaard adopted the theatrical quirk often associated with Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam, asking the second timpanist to emerge dressed in civvies from the audience, like some rogue opportunist fancying his chances on the big drums. The impact as Alasdair Kelly launched his first brutal salvo was electrifying, the ensuing cross-stage duel with SSO principal timpanist Gordon Rigby as bellicose as the previous weekend’s destructive rampage of Celtic fans around the City Halls’ environs.
So yes, this was a Nielsen Four bristling with fervour, demonic and transformative in equal measure, but not without tenderness and simplicity when moments called for it. What short-changed it were these inexplicable hypos where Dausgaard visibly seemed to release his grasp on the action and draw back as if in some personal conversation with himself. At these points glitches appeared, uneven attacks or the odd tremor in the rhythmic flow.
Between the symphonies, the contribution by soloist Jörg Widmann in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was a baffling one. He’s a known eccentric, and this performance lived up to that reputation from his very first utterance, adopting a coarseness of tone that veered towards agonising. Add to that affectation his tendency to skew the intonation, and a certain ugliness found its way into a very beautiful concerto.
It wasn’t all so questionable, Widmann proving in the slow movement how lyrically poised his playing can be, and imbuing much of the finale with sparkle and stylistically conducive incision. Moreover, Dausgaard found a place in this for an SSO performance that was lithe and poetically Mozartian, even if the task of following Widmann’s rhythmic idiosyncrasies made the job more difficult than it ought to have been.
All in all, this Dausgaard finale was one of mixed results, which is a fair enough assessment of his time with the SSO.
Available for 30 days after live broadcast via BBC Sounds