Thomas Dausgaard inspires a terrific evening of Bartók and Nielsen in Glasgow

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartók, Nielsen: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (conductor). City Halls, Glasgow, 12.5.2022. (GT)

Thomas Dausgaard conducts the BBC SSO (c) Chris Christodoulou

BartókThe Wooden Prince, Op.16 Sz.60

Nielsen – Symphony No.2 ‘The Four Temperaments’, Op.16 FS29

This concert brings together two twentieth-century composers (Bartók and Nielsen) who often are forgotten against their colleagues who grab the bulk of the modernist repertoire of the world’s leading orchestras. Performances of their music tend to stay out of the limelight with the occasional programming in festivals or recordings. Bartok’s most popular pieces are his Concerto for Orchestra, the Third Piano Concerto, and the Divertimento for String Orchestra. The reason does not lie in the music, rather it is in the often difficult orchestral scores which demands the highest standards of both preparation and performance.

Initially written to share an evening with his neglected Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, the composer wrote, ‘I am so fond of my first opera that when I received the script of the dance pantomime from Béla Balázs, I immediately thought that the ballet, with its spectacular effects, as well as its colourful, rich and varied plot, would make it possible for my two works to be staged during the same night.’ Balázs, himself believed his libretto was about the conflict between true and false values. ‘I was thinking here of the deep tragedy that artists frequently experience when an act of creation becomes a rival of the creator, and of the painful glory when a woman prefers the poem to the poet, the picture to the painter.’

Here we heard the composer’s 1932 final version and, in a score, often described as cinematic, the opening passages on the low strings sounded like a dawn-like sensation enhanced by the sun rays of a spring morning. The almost Wagnerian harmonies in expression were embellished by outstanding wind playing especially by the horn of David Tollington, and the strings’ beautiful harmonies brought a stunning climax. There was a particularly powerful momentum in Thomas Dausgaard’s conducting – it was clear that he knows this music inside out and produced a superbly strong performance bringing out all the colours in the score.

There were many outstanding moments of virtuosity from his musicians, especially during the princess’s descent from her miniature castle to play and dance invoked by superlative playing from Michael Whight on the clarinet. In the dance between the princess and the wooden prince, Bartok’s orchestration was decorated by marvellous, frenzied dancing especially from the harps, celeste and wind. Dausgaard’s dynamic conducting throughout was emphasised by his clear and expressive gestures. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s superb playing was emphasised in the dance of the princess by the mellifluous four horns, xylophone and the tuba of Andrew Duncan, followed by some fine playing from the solo cello by Rudi De Groote. The crowning of the prince by the fairy was expressed with great beauty on the strings, leading to a brilliant shimmering finish by the orchestra as the couple embraced happily ever after. This performance of a rarely heard piece revealed that the orchestra are at a new high following some fine recent concerts under different conductors of diverse repertoire. Certainly Dausgaard has shown that there is much wonderful music in Bartók’s score, leading one to wonder why we do not hear it more often.

The symphonies of Carl Nielsen are rarely heard in Scotland, although Bryden Thomson conducted the complete cycle here about thirty years ago (and recorded them commercially). With few of the symphonies performed, there is even less attention given to his concertos for clarinet, flute and violin. Nielsen’s six symphonies were the heart of the BBC SSO’s Spring Series however the first concert in January was postponed, so only five of the six are being performed over a week of concerts, at the end of which Dausgaard, the orchestra’s Chief Conductor, takes his leave. Nielsen’s Second Symphony is based on a painting of four portraits while the composer was sitting with his friends in a village tavern in Denmark. The emotions of each portrayal typify odd emotional expressions embracing amusement, desolation, fortitude and joy stirring Nielsen to write this symphony of ‘Four Temperaments’. The opening movement, (Allegro collerico) opened with a burst of dynamic, exciting music – notably from the excellent brass, and markedly by a thrilling passage from the oboe of Stella McCracken, leading to a passage of glorious playing by the orchestra. The stunningly electric whip of orchestral virtuosity carried though into the second movement (Allegro comodo e flemmatico) where intensity flowed – spilling over with starkly open sentiments and finished off by a rather macabre waltz.

Quite different feelings emerged in the third movement (Andante malincolico) with the conductor bringing out grave, almost resigned stoicism from his players with the strings invoking a great aching sadness, complemented by stunning playing again from the oboe of McCracken and the brass section. This impressive symphony was brought to a brilliant conclusion with magnificent virtuosity in the fourth movement (Allegro sanquineo) with an explosion of riotously joyous music – robustly dynamic and exciting before rolling over with bursts of exuberance, and the last superb switch in tempo from Dausgaard leading us through to the glorious finale.

This was a superb concert combining two of the twentieth-century’s most exciting modernist composers, and one looks forward to the final concert in this cycle of Nielsen’s symphonies next week. This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 25 May (subsequently available on BBC Sounds).

Gregor Tassie

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