Danish Maestro Gets a New Conducting Appointment

 United StatesUnited States  Beethoven and Schubert: Christian Ihle Hadland (piano), Alina Pogostkina (violin), Andreas Brantelid (cello), Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 6.10.2013 (BJ)

Beethoven: Triple Concerto, Op. 56
Schubert: Symphony No. 9, D. 944, “Great C-major”


The Seattle Symphony’s first subscription concerts of this October were exciting not only in themselves, but by virtue of coinciding with the announcement of Thomas Dausgaard’s appointment as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor. Starting in 2014, he will conduct three weeks each season for the three years of his contract; in 2015, he will lead a festival celebrating the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth, and including all seven of the composer’s symphonies.

I have been greatly impressed by the Danish maestro’s previous Seattle appearances in 2010 and 2011, and it was very clear from the concert of 6 October that he already enjoys a highly cordial relationship with the orchestra. Visually, his style contrasts strongly—which is all to the good—with music director Ludovic Morlot’s own excellent podium manner. He never gives unnecessary beats, but is often content simply to preside over an ensemble that is going along perfectly well without interference. The players’ enthusiasm about working with him is apparent, and the sound he draws from them ranges as appropriate from the delicacy of a true pianissimo to climaxes of tremendous power.

It was a further pleasure, on this occasion, to encounter a performance of Schubert’s “Great C-major” that observed almost all of the composer’s indicated repeats, omitting only the two in the da capo of the scherzo. The work, as a result, took a full hour to unfold. It may seem vulgar to suggest that size is an important facet of a work of art—but it’s worth recalling the dictum of the 19th-century historian and essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay. Cited by the musicologist Sir Donald Tovey in the context of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Macaulay “shrewdly observed that the size of the Great Pyramid was essential to its sublimity, ‘for what could be more vile than a pyramid thirty feet high?’.”

From this performance, Schubert’s last orchestral masterpiece emerged truly sublime. The big tuttis were genuinely awesome. There was no end of exquisite solo playing, especially from principal oboist Ben Hausmann. Texture, too, was so lucid that I heard many orchestral details that usually go for nothing; and the prominence given to the bass strings meant that moments like the contrabasses’ little descending chromatic scale in the third-movement trio—perhaps my single favorite touch in the entire symphony—made their full impact.

It was possible to feel that Dausgaard’s tempo for the first movement was too fast—this was not so much an “Allegro ma non troppo” as an “Allegro un poco troppo”—and I would have enjoyed a tad more flexibility of pace in such passages as the minor-key second subject. But all the salient touches were realized with much poetry, including the recall, towards the end of exposition and recapitulation, of the introduction theme imaginatively scored for three pianissimo trombones in unison. And a sufficient degree of tempo flexibility did surface in the following movements.

The evening had begun with a no less satisfying account of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, a too often underrated masterpiece. The personal involved presented a cosmopolitan picture, with the Danish conductor joined by a Norwegian pianist, a Russian violinist, and a cellist of Swedish and Danish stock, but there was certainly no flaw in the unanimity of the performance they fashioned.

Like most piano-trio set-ups before the middle of the 19th century, the solo parts are conceived for piano, violin, and cello, rather than in the conventional order in which the players were listed in the program book. Christian Ihle Hadland is a big man, but, along with fully adequate power in loud passages, he also (like such other big pianists as Garrick Ohlsson) commands notable delicacy of touch.

Of the two solo string instruments, it is actually the cello that is accorded most of the leading thematic exposition. Andreas Brantelid is only 25 or 26 years old, but he is already a performer who combines impeccable technique with a deeply impressive power of communication. Given the passionate eloquence he brought to bear on the music, it was surprising that he disregarded the little sfp accent in the third measure of his part in the slow movement–but this is the only tiny complaint I could wish to make about his performance. And it was notable that, while not eschewing vibrato as emphatically as some officially “Historically Informed” performers avoid it,  both he and the equally gifted and sweet-toned violinist, Alina Pogostkina, moderated their use of the resource, and in many places confined it to the longer notes where it is, after all, Historically Justifiable.

Dausgaard was meticulous in aligning the complex solo parts seamlessly with the orchestral texture. Beethoven and Schubert alike—indeed, the whole concert was both a happy event and a happy augury for his future work with the Seattle Symphony.

Bernard Jacobson