When Patricia Kopatchinskaja is on the bill, you're guaranteed to encounter the unexpected, no matter how well-known the music. She joined forces with the Seattle Symphony as the protagonist in Shostakovich's epic, devastating First Violin Concerto, the centrepiece on this programme.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Thomas Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony
© Carlin Ma

That genre classification never seems quite adequate to cover the formidable scope of this work, written a few years after World War 2 but held back until after Stalin's death (when it was less of a risk to perform). It ranks among the most challenging in the literature, not just technically, but in the emotional demands it makes of the performer.

For Kopatchinskaja, however, who experienced the twilight of the Soviet era as a child from her corner in present-day Moldova, the Shostakovich is in fact relatively conservative, standard fare. But her account abounded in surprises, negotiating the razor's edge between soul-crushing desperation and dangerous abandon. It also showed her generosity: just the night before, Kopatchinskaja, with soprano Ah Young Hong, had given an overwhelming and committed performance of Kurtág's Kafka Fragments in SSO's Octave 9 chamber space. Not for this artist to choose the easy path.

Clad in her trademark deconstructed concert suit, Kopatchinskaja glided between notes in the opening Nocturne movement with spellbinding eloquence, underscoring a sense of fragility and soft-spoken terror as she tentatively landed on sustained notes. Her folk roots added spice to the Scherzo, where she leaned into phrases with defiant joy and hell-for-leather intensity (not to mention fascinating bowing technique).

Thomas Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony
© Carlin Ma

Ineffable compassion emanated from the Passacaglia, the concerto's emotional centre, in which the violinist, visibly moved and in turn rending the audience's collective heart, used her laser attention to the tiniest phrase to complement the slowly smoldering buildup of Shostakovich's vast structure. Just as you thought the abyss of despair could plumb no deeper, Kopatchinskaja forged her way, in the immense cadenza, to a finale charged with risky exuberance. Even the stomping of her bare feet seemed an essential direction from the score. A friend visiting Seattle for the first time, who had spent the day making a pilgrimage to Nirvana sites, remarked on the similarity between grunge and the violinist's raw, visceral mode of communication.

This marked Kopatchinskaja's first time working with Thomas Dausgaard, and it was fascinating to observe these two powerful musical minds in collaboration. The Danish conductor judiciously balanced the orchestra without unduly reining in the players. As an encore, the violinist joined principal cellist Efe Baltacıgil in the Très vif movement of Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello – an effervescent, spirited account that also emphasised the collaborative attitude that gave her Shostakovich such a vital edge.

The concerto would have constituted a fully satisfying meal in itself, but Dausgaard framed it with glorious orchestral scores from the late 19th century by two fellow Scandinavians. Rather like Kopatchinskaja, albeit through very different means and philosophy, he gave the familiar strains of Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite no. 1 a fresh, personalized touch. He drew out a genuine sense of lingering pain from the final cadence of Åse's Death and reveled in the dissonant clashes that stop the determined march of In the Hall of the Mountain King.

Dausgaard and his orchestra are in the midst of a complete Nielsen symphony cycle, having already released acclaimed accounts of Nos. 3 and 4 on the SSO's in-house label. The programme ended with the Symphony no. 1 in G minor. A work rarely heard in these parts, the Nielsen bursts forth in medias res (with the peculiar tempo Allegro orgoglioso). Dausgaard inspired the players to bring forth the symphony's tremendous élan with shimmering colours.