This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius. The usual way the BBC celebrates a major-composer anniversary at the Proms is to programme three or four major works and a smattering of smaller pieces. The brains behind this season, in a stroke of genius (or, more likely, as part of an easy-but-uninspired box-ticking exercise – witness the programming of all five Prokofiev piano concertos in one evening earlier in the season) have decided that Promenaders should hear all seven Sibelius symphonies (plus the violin concerto and Finlandia) across three consecutive evenings, performed by two orchestras and three conductors. This daunting enterprise opened on Saturday night with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard.
They began with a sprightly performance of Finlandia, in which dynamics were dexterously controlled (particularly at the entry of the main melody), and which reminded the audience how good it feels to be in the same room as a piece of Sibelius. From there, however, things went downhill with the performance of the First Symphony. Dausgaard conducted without a score, and with swooping gestures in which he appeared to play the cello, or shield himself from loud brass sections; this may make for expressive dynamics, but there isn’t always a clear beat. Whether it was this uncertainty of control, or a lack of rehearsal was uncertain, but there were decidedly ragged moments – brass entries in the first movement were sometimes not as sure as they could be; some string passages were not together; a rapid passage for pizzicato strings and woodwind in the second movement very nearly came apart. The adroitly co-ordinated opening pizzicato section of the scherzo redeemed the situation somewhat, but the suddenly-quiet final plucked notes of the symphony were nowhere near together.
It is possible that more rehearsal time was spent on the Second Symphony, or it may simply be that the orchestra knew it better, leaving them some spare concentration to intuit the conductor’s intentions, but it was given a much more orderly performance. As with Finlandia, Dausgaard took it at a brisk pace, which, alas, meant that the expansive theme in the last movement was over before anyone had a chance to enjoy it (the concert finished eight minutes earlier than planned), but his dynamic control – for example, the quiet development of the haunting pastoral theme from its oboe entry in the third movement, or the exciting build up of the coda – allowed the audience to savour at least some of Sibelius’ intentions.