If one is looking to make an impression in the Royal Albert Hall, look no further than the opening of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. From the grumble of a low C organ pedal and bass drum tremolo at the outset, the opening brass fanfares were paced and measured from Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra made the most of the hall’s acoustic. As the piece began to unfold it was clear Dausgaard understood the narrative of Strauss’ setting of the Nietzsche poem as there was much evocation and storytelling throughout the piece in this engaging and luscious performance.

Thomas Dausgaard
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

In the section Von den Hinterweltlern there was a darkness to the sound. Here Dausgaard diligently balanced the rich string sonorities against the might of the organ. Whilst in Das Tanzlied, the waltz section had a pleasing folk-like lilt and the orchestral sound was the epitome of clarity. The sound, accuracy and precision of the brass and woodwind was faultless throughout, as was the viola soloist. Leader, Laura Samuel, took some time in finding her feet with her solos, the initial ones lacking projection. Perhaps Dausgaard had been listening to Yannick Nezet-Séguin earlier this week taking a lesson in how to tame the Albert Hall acoustic in Strauss so effectively? The biggest disappointment was the tolling midnight bell. The BBCSSO had brought a church bell which visually appeared to bring some intrigue. The score marks the first of the 12 strikes of midnight fff, then subsequently fading, unfortunately this wasn’t the case as disappointingly not all of the twelve strikes were audible in the hall. On reaching the end, there was a sense of mystery and ambiguity. 

After the interval, a work which has had over a hundred Proms performances — Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, from classic interpreters such as Dame Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer and two pianists with links to the Schumann dynasty – Fanny Davis and Dame Moura Lympany. This was a very individual reading of the piece from soloist Alexander Melnikov, it was one with fine classical sophistication and a sense of romantic introspection. Throughout the three movements there was a complete lack of bravado, Melnikov seeming to play down the bigger moments to something with a greater emotional restraint. The tone Melnikov caressed from the piano was one of sheer beauty. The melodies, whether in the right or left hand, always had a bell like clarity, balanced with delicacy. This was a considered reading in which there was particularly strong attention to ensure when phrases were echoed they were done respectfully, carefully passing them back and forth.

In the first movement the recap of the initial subject spoke like a distant voice, an echo, of something lost which was particularly subtle. The second movement, more expansive, prolonged this sense of distant voice in which there was a very evocative dialogue between piano and orchestra. With a seamless transition into the final movement, Melnikov had reserved the grandest gestures until last, knowing when to peak. This highly personal interpretation was warmly received by the audience who were rewarded with a very hushed encore of Schumann’s Träumerei from Kinderszenen.

After the hiatus of the long stage reset, the highlight of the night was James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. It was this orchestra who gave the premiere of the work in 1990 (in this very venue) and it was performed here once again in the presence of the composer. One didn’t have to know the narrative of this tragically sad work to understand the highly intense emotions in this extraordinarily communicative reading. There were moments in which one could sense the rawness of the violence, torture and pain this unfortunate soul, who hand been branded a witch, had to endure. The pristine intonation and richness of the strings stood out, for example the quality of the vibrato-less tone from the violas was exquisite. Placing the two percussionists at opposite ends of the platform created a sense of dialogue. On reaching the final notes, one could see the genius of the planning in this concert; three seemingly unconnected pieces on the surface, however the music returning full circle (from unison Cs and through the relative minor in the Schumann), from the darkest moments prior to sunrise and back again.