This generous programme given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard featured three works each characterised by a sense of personal struggle. Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony has some claim to being the gloomiest C major symphony ever written, representing in one eminent Sibelian’s view – Sir Simon Rattle – a kind of extended scream. Originally called Fantasia sinfonica, it was written after and during a long period of constant inebriation which drove the composer’s wife Aino to distraction. It is unusual, not only because of its one-movement structure, fusing elements of a slow movement, scherzo, sonata form, rondo and grand symphonic coda, but also because it requires subtle gear-changes, with a slow beginning and very measured conclusion framing many near-seamless transitions.

Thomas Dausgaard © Per Morten Abrahamsen
Thomas Dausgaard
© Per Morten Abrahamsen
Dausgaard, who conducted both the Sibelius and later the Tchaikovsky from memory, laid bare his direction of travel in the opening bars. This was to be a strongly string-based view of the work, with a solid bedrock of sound above which the individual wind voices floated like wisps of cloud. It was an accomplished performance, aided by richly expressive playing from the RPO strings, the organic growth that is implied in the score at times compromised by Dausgaard’s attempts to inject additional moments of drama through questionable musical punctuation. This was less a forest giant being roused from winter slumber than a frisky gazelle grazing on the first shoots of fresh spring vegetation.

Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor started life as a single-movement fantasia but the composer was unable to find a publisher, and the final work was many years in the making. In a letter to Clara Wieck, the composer described it as “a compromise between a symphony, a concerto and a huge sonata”. A successful performance of such a hybrid naturally requires a keen grasp of the structural elements. Khatia Buniatishvili demonstrated once again that she is a maverick artist. This was a performance of extremes, the dreamy moments in the first movement over-indulged and more extrovert passages driven at breakneck speed. One could argue that Buniatishvili was legitimately stretching the potential for romantic expression to its limit, with both Florestan and Eusebius vying for the upper hand. However, this came at a cost: when impetuosity is writ large, technical execution falters and any feeling for architectural awareness is quickly dissipated. After a deliberate beginning, the cadenza had a nervous twitch to it, with poor articulation towards the end instead of a cumulative build. In the Intermezzo, Buniatishvili frequently retreated into extremely slow and quiet playing, as though she was reluctant to allow the audience to enter into her own private world. Although the finale had plenty of dash and spirit to it, there were telling moments when mere animation became an excuse for over-excitement. The encore took us into the same dream-world with its crystalline tone that Buniatishvili had inhabited in the concerto. Debussy’s Clair de lune was voiced almost inaudibly at the start. Admittedly, the notes were played like individual glistening pearls lying in the oyster-bed, demonstrating the soloist’s affinity for the French repertoire, but the phrasing was unnecessarily elongated and etiolated. This moonlight was much better than any sleeping pill could ever be!

Fate has always been seen as the central organising idea in Tchaikovsky’s F Minor symphony. It was written in 1877, the year of his hasty marriage and also a suicide attempt, during a period of great personal turmoil and neurotic self-examination. But if the composer tended to portray himself as the victim of fate, these external circumstances will almost certainly have included musical influences. Only a year earlier Tchaikovsky had been overwhelmed by a performance of Bizet’s Carmen in Paris – in which two fateful episodes are set in the key of F minor – as he had been by the first performances of the Ring cycle in Bayreuth.

One of the merits of Dausgaard’s interpretation was his firm grip on the symphonic structure which nevertheless allowed sufficient room for the moments of theatricality inherent in the score. Speeds were very steady throughout and the playing, though not always immaculate, delivered a welcome intensity of expression, from the wind that had been somewhat reticent earlier on in the Sibelius, and not least from the strings. The heartache might have been occasionally underplayed but there were no disfiguring indulgences or eccentricities from Dausgaard; individual sections were well balanced, with the brass never rampant. Amongst the many delicacies in the performance were the beautifully hushed strings set against the heart-beat of the timpani in the first movement, and in the scherzo the pizzicato strings sounded like a swarm of humming bees with a particular piquancy from the piccolo. Others might have exploited the emotional potential more but it was good to be reminded what a superb symphonist Tchaikovsky was.