The First Instalment of the Proms’ Sibelius Cycle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 40: Sibelius: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Royal Albert Hall London, 15.8.2015 (CS)

Symphony No.1 in E Minor
Symphony No.2 in F major


In their anniversary years, composers can benefit from our overdue exposure to music which has long been overlooked, or they can suffer from our over-exposure to monotonous repetitions of ‘best knowns’, resulting in audience-fatigue and inattentiveness.  2015 sees the Scandinavian ‘siblings’, Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen celebrate their 150th ‘birthdays’, or rather allows us to celebrate their births on their behalf.  So far, in the UK, we have enjoyed complete cycles from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra of the Danish Nielsen’s six symphonies – works which only really entered the repertoire from the 1960s onwards following their promotion by Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic – and Simon Rattle’s Sibelius cycle at the Barbican in February with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  It feels right for the Proms to give us something to compare.

Sibelius’s symphonies were eulogised as the heir to Beethoven’s symphonic masterpieces in Britain and the United States (as late as 1978 Lionel Pike would publish an analytical study entitled Beethoven, Sibelius and the ‘Profound Logic’) but denigrated as regressive by the European avant-garde. They are receiving a timely full-hearing at this year’s Proms, and the series was launched by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and its new Chief Conductor-Designate, the Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, who will take over the reins of the BBCSSO from Donald Runnicles in September 2016, and who, as the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, performed the Finnish composer’s complete symphonies in March.

On the strength of this performance of the first two symphonies, written when Sibelius was in his twenties, and here prefaced by the nationalistic paean Finlandia, one might summarise Dausgaard’s approach to the composer as one which refuses to dwell in sentimental hinterlands, or to indulge in nationalistic, heroic excess.  In all three works, conducting from memory, the Dane swept things along briskly.  There were advantages: the tendency to view Sibelius as primarily a sonic artist of bleak Finnish landscapes – en plein air – was avoided, and there were certainly convincing episodes where Dausgaard, driving ever forward, seemed to have the measure of the complex metrical and structural relationships operating within the scores.  And there was a welcome absence of inclination to suggest ‘extra-musical’ meaning.  But there was also an occasional absence of expansiveness, and space within which to reflect, as well as some untidy ensemble at times.

The defiant brass chords which open Finlandia – and which herald the arrival on Finnish soil of the Russian boots of the forces of Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia (who in February 1899 had issued a February Manifesto restricting the autonomy of the Grand Duchy of Finland) – were penetrating but not overly snarling: ominous rather than a roar.  One was reminded of the account, impassioned but probing, of the first performance by the Finnish composer Heikki Klemetti, who suggested that, ‘Those grand, gloomy themes at the beginning of what is now Finlandia rolled across the tableau depicting the horrors of the “Great Hate”’ [referring to the scorched-earth and reprisal tactics of the Russian Army during its invasion of Finland, 1714-21].  The horns’ warnings were given extra bite by timpanist Gordon Rigby, whose contribution was superlative throughout the evening.  When the Finnish fighting spirit rose its hackles, Dausgaard’s swift tempo made the mood – encapsulated by the strings’ dancing repetitive rhythms – seem jubilant rather than aggressively assertive.  He didn’t allow much loosening during the woodwinds’ reflective interlude either, and here I felt that an airier breadth would have provided a more thoughtful contrast; but overall there was no doubting the excitement generated.

Completed in 1899, Sibelius’s First Symphony was in a sense not his first symphonic foray, following as it did the Kalevala-inspired ‘symphonic’ works, the ‘Choral Symphony’ Kullervo and the Lemminkäinen Suite, and the music for Karelia and En Saga (1892), but its not inconsiderable formidable formal and interpretative challenges suggest a young composer searching to define his own voice and method.

In the opening bars, Yann Ghiro’s beautiful clarinet solo suggested profound metaphysical questions especially when, delicate yet sure of line, it floated free of the timpani’s initial supporting motif.  But, in the unfolding movements Dausgaard did not encourage his players to find solutions for these enigmas: rather he adopted a more theatrical approach, highlighting the composer’s penchant for sudden contrasts between heroic splendour, romantic sentimentality and wintry isolation.  Wistful string playing at the start of the Andante (ma non troppo lento) swelled richly to a fine episode for bassoons and clarinet – representative of the splendid individual performances that characterised the evening.  I felt that in this movement, as the tempo ebbed and flowed, but never felt stagnant or indulgent, Dausgaard revealed a strong appreciation of the organic evolution of pulse and metre which would come to be the controlling organisational element of the Fifth Symphony.  Strong horn playing in the following Scherzo: Allegro both complemented the prickling string pizzicatos and recalled the dark tones of the initially titled Finland awakens, that we had heard at the start of the evening.  In the final movement, it was the turn of the flutes and oboes to shine as soloists.  Here, Dausgaard effectively built small motifs into larger generative forces: the Quasi una fantasia opening did not suffer from fragmentation, and throughout the movement he drove the rhythms dramatically forward, underpinned by a tolling double bass pedal that seemed to echo like a signal from a cosmic force which could never be evaded.

Dausgaard sustained this approach during the Second Symphony, though here I felt that – at least, after the first two movements – there was less structural cohesiveness and fluency: it seemed to me that that the players were tiring, as perhaps were the expressive gestures and intent.  But there remained much to admire: some fantastic string intonation and unanimity of articulation, more beguiling playing from the bassoons, and imperious proclamations from the tuba, played by Andrew Duncan.  But, overall in this work Dausgaard seemed more keen to emphasis individual moments of high tension or exhilaration that to link such experiences together into a unified form.   This was particularly noticeably in the third movement, Vivacissimo ­– Lento e soave, where the contrasting material was skilfully rendered with excellent technical control by the strings in particular, but did not coalesce, the long pause between the tempo change not offering a stepping stone between the distinct material.  Contrast was the order of the day in the final Allegro molto too, but while there were some persuasive accelerations of pace these did not entirely hook the listener, and the final glorious thematic statements were just a little short of the necessary string sheen – the tremolandos felt a bit weary – and brassy glitter.

In April of this year, the critic Andrew Mellor – who in Gramophone magazine one year previously had pontificated that ‘What 2015 doesn’t need [is] a Sibelius symphony cycle’ – wrote an article in the Strad which not surprisingly initiated some heated critical debate, in which he reflected upon Rattle’s Sibelius cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic by asking the question, ‘Is there a “right” way to play Sibelius?’, arguing that something more ‘cool’ and ‘Nordic’ would have been a more appropriate sound-aesthetic that the rich luscious served up by the Germans at the Barbican.

Dausgaard’s sweeping approach might not be to everyone’s liking, but he inspired his instrumentalists to impassioned, penetrating playing.  While I think that there are ‘deeper’ things to draw from these works, and – though it seems harsh given the impressive performance of the BBCSSO and their unstinting commitment – finer players to articulate them, I enjoyed this opening concert of the cycle immensely.  Dausgaard knew what he wanted and undoubtedly drew the BBCSSO with him: they played keenly and were unceasingly alert to all of his instructions.  At the risk of grasping for the ineffable, what was missing perhaps was a sense of the ‘enigmatic’; and, perhaps, a clarity of interpretative aesthetic – allowing for the inadequacy of the terminology, were we being invited to see Sibelius as a ‘Romantic’, a ‘Modern’, or both?

It will be interesting to see how things develop when the BBCSSO perform Symphonies Three and Four (under Ilan Volkov, on 16th August) and the final three symphonies are presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 17th August, conducted by Osmo Vänskä

Claire Seymour

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