Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t be reviewing the first item of tonight’s concert at Sage Gateshead by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as I was actually one of the performers. In a brave experiment, conductor Thomas Dausgaard provided the audience with music and words and asked us to sing along to the hymn in Sibelius’ Finlandia. For those of us with the confidence to have a go, it was great fun, but the sense I had around me was one of typical British embarrassment at the prospect of having to sing in public, in a foreign language, and the lukewarm audience response distracted from what was otherwise a deliciously punchy Finlandia that crackled with electric energy, particularly from the dark-toned upper strings and shuddering basses.

Viktoria Mullova © Henry Fair
Viktoria Mullova
© Henry Fair

I’d guess that most of the audience tonight were performing Sibelius for the first time – unlike Viktoria Mullova, who is one of today’s most celebrated performers of his violin concerto, ever since her prize-winning performance at the 1980 Sibelius Competition. It’s difficult to write about Mullova and Sibelius without making predictable references to ice and winter: Mullova’s platform style is famously restrained – with her there is none of the head-tossing or physical demonstrativeness that some violinists enjoy, and her face remains almost expressionless. Everything is concentrated on the music, and every note pings out from her strings with focussed, crystalline brilliance.

Dausgaard played off Mullova’s icy calm, letting the BBC SSO swirl around her while she drew us in to her stillness at the centre of the storm. In the first movement, after a shimmering opening, the strings took on the dark hues that we had heard in Finlandia; the flutes danced in excitement, the cellos surged around the solo line and by the end of the first movement it felt as if the whole orchestra were conspiring to lead Mullova astray, but she resisted temptation with steely resolve. In the second movement the brass punctuated the moody strings and Mullova’s passionate vibrato with bright calls, giving the impression that we were on a brave journey into the unknown, but just as the music feels as if it’s building to a climax, Sibelius turns aside and between them, Dausgaard and Mullova brought the movement to a magical close. The stomping dance of the finale was held back at first: we were outside the house, listening to the party, then the doors were flung open and we were invited in. Bassoons growled in welcome whilst Mullova provided a light-show of focussed brilliance. For her encore, Mullova switched moods entirely: the Sarabande from Bach’s Violin Partita no. 2 in D minor glowed with warmth and deep love.

The good-humoured warmth of Nielsen’s Symphony no. 2 "The Four Temperaments" was a nice foil to anyone who thinks that Nordic culture is all darkness and ice. The symphony was inspired by a visit to a pub, where the composer saw a comical picture illustrating the four temperaments of human character, as defined by Hippocrates: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine, and he depicts one of these in each movement. Dausgaard honed in on Nielsen’s humour, creating mischievous musical cartoons. The orchestra could barely contain their glee poking fun at the empty fury of the choleric man, brief moments of terse spikiness and pomposity quickly gave way to laughter. The second movement, the Phlegmatic, was a study in indolence; gorgeously laid-back. The sleepy bassoon solo declared that no, we couldn’t be bothered with anything, and although the orchestra briefly attempted to stir itself, it sank back into a lazy swing and drifted off to sleep. The mood turned serious for Melancholy, Dausgaard realising perhaps that it’s not fair to make fun of misery: the opening theme was achingly sad, and played with a deep sense of sympathy. The winds added lovely colour as the music briefly struggled to put on a brave face and find enjoyment but failed, and the return of the opening theme felt even more loaded with grief after the abortive attempt at happiness.

Thankfully the final movement, the Sanguine, really was happy, although if these four characters were lined up side-by-side, then Mr Sanguine was cruelly oblivious to the misery of Mr Melancholy next-door as Dausgaard led the BBC SSO on a merry, carefree dance. As with the other movements, Nielsen provides a brief passage of contrast, or a possibility that the character might change: here the music turned gently thoughtful for a while, but eventually shrugged its shoulders, decided that everything would be ok in the end, and perked up for a breezy close to the concert.

****1