As Thomas Dausgaard continues along in his inaugural season as Seattle Symphony's Music Director, it's gratifying to see his intense rapport with the musicians expanding to different areas of the repertoire. In this case, the fare involved two works by Russian composers, both calling for an enormously expanded orchestra and premiered within five years of each other.

Thomas Dausgaard conducts the Seattle Symphony © Carlin Ma
Thomas Dausgaard conducts the Seattle Symphony
© Carlin Ma

Yet Alexander Scriabin's Le Poème de l’extase inhabits a cosmos vastly different from the one conjured by Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps. (Like Stravinsky, the cosmopolitan Scriabin even composed part of this work while living in Paris.) To be sure, those differences derive from the composers' irreconcilable aesthetic outlooks – Stravinsky loathed his somewhat older compatriot and even declared that "he isn't a musician at all" – but also owe something significant to the paths Western music history has taken over the past century, in which Stravinsky's revolutionary ballet score has played such a decisive role.

But for the incredibly concentrated 20 minutes of Le Poème de l’extase's duration, it was possible to revel in the strange, beguiling extremity of these sounds and to contemplate an alternate history of modern music. Whether you prefer to account for that in purely musical terms, noting Scriabin's unmooring of tonal orientation, or – as the composer himself encouraged – by referring to his esoteric mystical convictions and Nietzschean fever dreams of the creative human spirit, Dausgaard led a stirring, immersive account that inspired playing at the very highest level form the SSO.

Dausgaard is an especially fine interpreter of late Romantic repertoire – he's already given Seattle a taste of his first-rate Richard Strauss – and in the Scriabin this gift showed itself above all in the luscious, sensual, gorgeously balanced blends of colour he drew from the orchestra. Especially fine were the contributions from principal horn Jeff Fair and trumpeter David Gordon, whose recurrently stated motif suggests an enigmatic striving far apart from the angst of Ives's Unanswered Question of the same time.

Le Poème de l’extase, which otherwise can sound perilously amorphous, swelled and billowed orgiastically, like a magnified orchestral Liebestod, so that its various climaxes were heard to build to the exhilarating final intensification: Dausgaard's firm control over the whole, paradoxically, gave full rein to the sense of ecstatic liberation Scriabin has in view.

© Carlin Ma
© Carlin Ma

As a segue to the Stravinsky blockbuster on the concert's second half, Dausgaard was joined by an ensemble of Russian folk music singers and players. Identified only as "Juliana & Pavel" in the programme, these musicians, appearing in colourful, authentic folk dress, played and sang traditional Russian music. Dausgaard alternated by leading the SSO in short passages from Rite illustrating how Stravinsky adapted and transformed this material. The exercise was much more effective than a similar one the conductor introduced into his Kullervo programme here in 2018. It brought into focus the paradox of Rite's simultaneously ultra-modern and mysteriously archaic aspects (though the question still gnaws: how is Rite able to continue sounding so modern, up to the present?)

Another novelty: Dausgaard chose the rarely heard version from 1920 (the first time Stravinsky revisited the score in connection with a brand-new staging of the ballet), which contained several noticeable differences in The Sacrifice. It was a very fine performance, but after the controlled abandon and precision of the Scriabin, this Rite sounded frankly anti-climactic. Over long stretches, tension was lacking, and I missed a sense of the very extremity that had been so convincing in Le Poème.

***11