Thomas Dausgaard can be relied upon for thoughtful and imaginative programme-planning, and this Prom was no exception; culminating as it did with a first UK performance for Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony in its (much discussed though rarely heard) original version.
That Sibelius spent some five years working towards the definitive version of this piece has led most commentators to conclude, not unreasonably, that what he started out with was not what he had intended. While the sheer formal mastery of what it became by 1919 cannot be gainsaid, it would be wrong to assume those idiosyncrasies of four years earlier are merely failings on the composer’s part. All credit to Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish SO conveying what is a reckless yet always riveting conception of determinedly radical import.
They may have been separate entities in 1915, but the initial two movements evinced no lack of expressive continuity: the first never tentative as it unfolds from modal poise to pan-tonal (rather than overtly chromatic) ambivalence; the second emerging as the deftest of Scherzos whose absence of any cumulative impetus is made explicit by the fractured continuity at the close. What follows is an intermezzo whose circling harmonic motion and presentation of its motifs in constantly varying contexts was mesmerizingly in evidence. If the Finale then fails to draw the overall design together, this was hardly the fault of Dausgaard as he endowed its distinctive but disparate ideas with an overarching momentum as sustained this movement to a peroration whose conclusiveness may have been provisional yet was never merely tentative.
This remarkable performance wholly vindicated what can seem a bemusing 'first attempt' as a questing statement in its own right. An appropriate occasion for featuring the original version of the Violin Concerto, though Pekka Kuusisto opted for the familiar revision – given a resourceful reading notable for the success with which the soloist adapted his tone to the expanse of the Royal Albert Hall acoustic and for Dausgaard's attentive handling of the orchestra. Highlights were an insightful take on the first movement's cadenza that underlined its developmental role, then an Adagio whose eloquence never felt laminated onto the music. An overly impetuous Finale left Kuusisto with little interpretative room to manoeuvre, but he had enough in reserve for a vital account of the Fourth Humoresque as a bewitching encore.
In each half Kuusisto was joined by Finnish folk musicians for extemporised preambles to the main works, jointly elaborated by Dausgaard with harmonium player Timo Alakotila so that traditional melodies (from the collections Finlands Svenska Folkdiktning and Vanhoja pelimannisavelmia) were juxtaposed with elements of the Sibelius works to follow. What resulted was enjoyable while a little too 'crossover' to provide a truly enlightening context, though there was no doubt as to either the dedication or the sincerity of those participating.
Indeed, the best of these collaborations was saved until last when, the awesome final bars of Sibelius Five still resonating in the mind's ear, Kuusisto led both players and audience in a typically free-form rendering of a Karelian folksong for an appealingly communal extra.