Scythian Suite, Op.20
Schelomo – Hebraic Rhapsody for cello and orchestra
Symphony No.4, Op.29 (The Inextinguishable)
Jian Wang (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 22 February, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This stunning BBC Symphony Orchestra concert capped a trio of orchestral performances in London in as many days (the other two from the LPO then the LSO) during which you had to pinch yourself into not taking such prodigal excellence of playing and tantalising programming for granted.
To begin with, though, I wasn’t convinced by Thomas Dausgaard’s wildly pro-active conducting, reminiscent of those grotesque caricatures of Mahler at his exercise on the podium – no wonder Dausgaard’s jacket has those generous pleats let into the shoulders; the seams would burst otherwise. Yet, as the ebulliently colour-saturated narration of gods and monsters in Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite (another wrong-side-of-the-sheets progeny of The Rite of Spring) heaved into action, the results very much justified the means. Dausgaard completely had the measure of this rippling balletic/cinematic hybrid, with its vast grinding tune in the first section and as many brilliantly written effects as you could shake a stick at, including a memorably glacial spread of string sound later in the opening movement. Dausgaard secured just the right degree of rhythmic hyperbole and heightened instrumental character to make the music soar into red-blooded life, peaking with a splendidly gaudy sunrise. It may not be music that leaves much to the aural imagination, and the huge BBCSO – 18 brass, piano, celesta, a couple of harps, monster percussion – acknowledged this with instantly identifiable Russian-like heft.
Ernst Bloch’s Schelomo (Solomon in Hebrew) was just as fully characterised. In a score that wears its Jewish heart on its sleeve, the way in which Jian Wang (as the introspective voice of King Solomon at odds with worldly – orchestral – vanity) cast a refractory veil over the music’s exaggerated polarities was exemplary. His lyrical playing never overplayed its hand and made light of some of Bloch’s more laboured rhetoric. The orchestration’s biblical proclivities are sincerely meant, but Wang’s centred, cultivated style and ravishing tone opened out the music with conviction, in a way, frankly, I’d have not thought possible. Dausgaard handled the potential balance problem between soloist and the large orchestra with skill, and Wang exploited this with playing of notable inward refinement.
Interestingly, to close this concert of music written during World War One, Dausgaard’s conducting was notably less-is-more in the Nielsen, but the performance, in an already highly-charged programme, was electrifying good – indeed, it was one of those rare renditions that somehow define a work. The message of the ‘Inextinguishable’, about the natural irrepressibility of the life force, lays itself wide open to grand musical symbolism at its most cliché-prone.
Not here it didn’t – via playing of volcanic directness Dausgaard shaped the Symphony’s unorthodox monothematicism with a sure sense of its accruing relevance; he let nothing peak too soon, he gave the woodwinds’ intermezzo a Mahlerian intensity of depth and distance; and when the duel of timpanists (John Chimes and Jeremy Cornes, one placed at the back of the platform, the other near the front, and both impassively magnificent) erupted in the finale, you appreciated how cleverly Dausgaard had prepared the ground for it, and the conflict itself has never sounded so integral, inevitable and elemental. The BBCSO surpassed itself in producing remarkable detail, definition and energy, but above all it was Dausgaard who illuminated the hair-raising originality and wisdom of this great work.
The Killing, Borgen, Thomas Dausgaard – what is going on in Denmark that we don’t know about?
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards)
- BBCSO www.bbc.co.uk/orchestras/so
- BBC Radio 3 www.bbc.co.uk/radio3
- Barbican www.barbican.org.uk
- As cited by Peter Reed, the two London concerts preceding this one by the BBCSO were by LPO/Marin Alsop (click here) and LSO/Haitink (click here for a review of the earlier performance)