The final concert of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's season was also the last appearance in Glasgow for Thomas Dausgaard as Chief Conductor. Six years in post, he has explored the music which composers heard round about them through his “Roots” series, putting familiar works in context, and he introduced new Scottish work in his “Inspirations” programming. Recently completing a cycle of Bartók’s orchestral works, he leaves the BBCSSO with an immense cycle of six symphonies by his Danish compatriot Carl Nielsen, two bookending this performance with Mozart, Nielsen’s favourite composer.

Thomas Dausgaard conducts the BBC Scottish SO
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Nielsen knew orchestras from the inside. A youthful bugler and army band alto trombonist, he settled on the violin, securing a place in the seconds in the Royal Danish Orchestra which gave a successful first performance of his Symphony no. 1 in G minor in 1894, the composer surprising the audience by taking his bow from the orchestra's ranks. With its fiercely rhythmic motifs and sweeping romantic gestures, it is a work bursting with creative ideas with so much to say. Dausgaard controlled the turbulent exuberance, balancing sections carefully as the music surged and ebbed. There was a warmth to the string sound and tremendous woodwind playing, three flutes and clarinets deftly weaving themes in the first movement. Brass salvos from trumpets and trombones added drama, joined by the horns for atmospheric chords in the lilting third movement. Watching Dausgaard vary from minimal to expansive gestures, he was clearly enjoying the work, bringing it to an end in a rousing finale, and for keen quizzers, the first symphony to finish in a different key (“progressive tonality”).

German clarinettist, conductor and composer Jörg Widmann has been artist in residence with the BBCSSO all season, conducting Schumann and his own compositions. Here, as soloist for Mozart’s well-known Clarinet Concerto in A major he wowed us in an extraordinary performance which was unpredictable, intimate and exciting. Widmann sees the work, one of the last Mozart wrote, as a sad farewell with its increasing dissonances, but always with a smile. A ball of energy, Widmann could not resist blowing a few notes along with the orchestra in the opening passages before his flowing solo, directed almost as a private serenade towards leader Laura Samuel so that it was difficult to know who was in charge. Widmann would turn towards Dausgaard and sometimes, caught in the moment, would offer additional gestures, but it was a harmonious partnership. Time almost stood still in the beautiful slow movement, Widmann exquisitely inhabiting every note before putting a swing into the lively finale, both feet off the ground at the flourishes. I got the impression that the orchestra will clearly miss him.

Nielsen’s Symphony no. 4, “The Inextinguishable” was written at a time of conflict in the composer’s personal life, particularly his difficult marriage, but also during the First World War. It is a work full of dynamism and life force, the four movements played straight through ending with a dramatic timpani battle. Ideas are set against each other, and yet the quiet theme in the clarinet in the first movement reappears in the last, giving the work an expansive arch. Dausgaard contrasted the joyous chaotic moments with lush episodes, folky themes from clarinet and bassoon with pizzicato strings, teasing the ear with rhythmic puzzles. Punchy brass and explosively violent outbursts from the violas were highlights, as was Dausgaard, squeezing every ounce of energy from the strings before the turbulent finale, the second timpanist keeping us guessing, but arriving out of the audience just in time to take up his battle station.

It’s a changing of the guard for BBCSSO, but this epic Nielsen cycle proved a fitting farewell as Dausgaard moves on to pastures new.