A great Dane bids Scotland farewell with magnificent BBC SSO performances of Mozart and Nielsen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Nielsen, Mozart: Jörg Widmann (clarinet), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (conductor). City Halls, Glasgow, 19.5.2022. (GT)

Thomas Dausgaard (c) BBC

Nielsen – Symphony No 1, Op.7, FS16; Symphony No 4, Op. 29, FS76 ‘The Inextinguishable’

Mozart – Clarinet Concerto in A major, K622

It has often been said that the best first symphonies are those by Brahms, Mahler and Shostakovich, however the First Symphony by Carl Nielsen could join this exclusive company for its maturity, exuberance and brilliant invention. Most significantly, the Danish composer had already found his own voice and expression. Without knowing this symphony or any of the composer’s work, the sheer force of argument and the excellent orchestration astonishes at first hearing.

For this final concert in the Spring Season, and closing this cycle of Nielsen’s symphonies, it might have been a more suitable choice to have one of the composer’s splendid concertos that deserve a place with those by Prokofiev, Berg, Shostakovich and Sibelius. Nevertheless, Mozart’s beautiful Clarinet Concerto proved a fine choice on this final evening of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s concert season.

Nielsen’s First Symphony opened the movement (Allegro orgoglioso) on an explosive burst searing one with its optimism and musicality, and with a tuneful character distinguished by the beautiful clarinet intonation of Cristina Mateo. She was well supported by the oboe of Stella McCracken and Anna Wolstenholme on flute. Every gesture from Thomas Dausgaard was effective, using his baton persuasively getting everything he wanted from his musicians – notably in the passage of the three harmonious flutes, enhanced by the rasping horns. In the second movement (Andante) the conductor now dispensed with his baton and the mood transformed into a more reflective momentum, articulated by heart-rending intonation from the woodwind, yet the idiom was transformed by a rather beguiling idea on the flute, and then switching to a beautiful passage on the violins enhanced by a horn solo from Anna Douglas. In the third movement (Scherzo) we heard a playful theme on the woodwind leading to a beautifully life-enhancing idea from Charlotte Cox on the bassoon, helping to generate in the orchestra a sequence of fiery rhythms and magical playing. In the finale, now switching to a blazing C major, with the audacious brass and woodwind singing with a rudely volatile optimism – as if telling of life’s joys – a beautifully expressed oboe solo passage led to growing power and the entrance of trumpets, trombones and a spectacular close.

To programme one of the most beautiful concertos ever written with two of Nielsen’s symphonies allows the listener relief from the angst and stress of modernist music with the calmer classicism of the eighteenth century. Now the orchestra was joined by the BBC SSO’s Artist in Residence, the German Jörg Widmann – who combines his composing with conducting and clarinet playing and is widely acclaimed for his virtuosity, as well as his fascinating compositions. As Widmann listened to the orchestra’s opening passage, he moved lightly across the stage in harmony with the musicians around him. The opening Allegro of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto offered a cooling of tensions with the charming orchestral entry and at last the soloist entered with some beautiful playing melding with the wonderful virtuosity of the orchestra in classical repertoire and all combining to create an easy-going melodiousness. In the second movement (Adagio) Widmann’s magical playing continued yet with a note of tragedy in a great sighing sway in his playing which was heartfelt, and in an ecstatic vocalise over a rapt orchestral accompaniment. The spirits were higher in the finale (Rondo: Allegro) with a bright upbeat and graceful close, throughout the German musician was fascinating to listen to and watch as he sought the eyes of his fellow musicians on stage – all of which was captivating. This work proved a wonderful interlude between the late romanticism of Nielsen’s symphonies.

Nielsen wrote his Fourth Symphony in the shadow of the Great War, and the all-consuming conflict is at the heart of the music. As he wrote to his wife, it ‘is meant to express what we understand by the life-urge or life-manifestation, that is to say: everything that moves, that craves life, that can be called neither good or evil, neither high nor low, neither great nor small, but simply: “That which is life” or “That which craves life”.’ The composer’s thoughts are most apparent in the opening Allegro, with a spectacular outburst from the brass, leading to dramatic sequence, which subsided quickly into a passage from the three flutes and then briefly to a reflective note from the cello of Rudi De Groote, with the idiom picked up by Mateo’s clarinet. This was suddenly interrupted by the violins’ potent attack, before the mood was changed by the glorious brass and melodious flute, heard alongside the dynamic thumps from the timpani, and a dramatic fortissimo from the violas. Following on from the opening movement, there was a moving sequence from the woodwind, and most notably from Mateo’s clarinet again, and by McCracken’s eloquent oboe, with the violins and cellos portraying great tragedy contrasted by glorious playing from the brass, leading slowly but inexorably onward with the strings’ exciting playing interrupted by the dramatic intervention of the timpani in a glorious sequence. The two timpani were placed opposite to each other, one above the orchestra, the other to the conductor’s right – terrifically played by Gordon Rigby and Alasdair Kelly in an astounding passage bringing this magnificent symphony to a close and garnering a storm of applause.

After the final bars, Dausgaard leaned back in satisfaction surveying his musicians who had produced such an incredible performance of world-class intensity in this life-enhancing symphony. This conductor over six seasons (two of which were afflicted by the worldwide pandemic) has been at the heart of many highlights in this orchestra’s music-making including appearances at the Vienna Musikverein, a weeklong residency in Tokyo, appearing at the BBC Proms, and a residency in Salzburg. There have been explorations of music by Bartók, Debussy, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius, and finally in his last year, of his compatriot Nielsen. Dausgaard was responsible also for commissioning a host of works from both British and European composers which will remain a lasting legacy to his work in Scotland. The standard of performance has risen significantly and one hopes that the maestro will return soon, for his presence in Glasgow will be greatly missed. For his successor, he will be leaving an ensemble of outstanding virtuosity and flexibility in diverse repertoire. This concert is available on BBC Sounds for 30 days.

Gregor Tassie

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