Greatness and gimmicks filled the Royal Albert Hall in Thomas Dausgaard’s Sibelius Prom. There was discovery, too, for anyone who hasn’t previously heard Osmo Vanskä’s recording of the Fifth Symphony in its original four-movement form. With performance restrictions now relaxed on these rejected first thoughts this curio was receiving its UK premiere and, provided it doesn’t enter the mainstream, I'm happy enough about that. Dausgaard describes this lumpen creation as revelatory because it shows the subsequent revision to be indicative of the composer’s direction of travel towards the stripped back language of the Seventh. Fair enough, but my reluctance to hear it too often is down to some melodic left turns Sibelius took in 1914, only to replace them with right turns five years later in the more familiar version. The earlier orchestration is heavier and has a sense of foreboding that dissatisfied a composer who, with remarkable objectivity, identified the work’s deficiencies and performed drastic surgery to lighten and brighten it without snipping an artery. But listener beware: those earlier earworms, if you'll pardon some mixed fauna, are cuckoos in the final one's nest and they burrow their way in. Don’t get to know the rejected Fifth too well. Let the right one in.

Thomas Dausgaard and Pekka Kuusisto © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Thomas Dausgaard and Pekka Kuusisto
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Dausgaard’s interpretation was bracing and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra played it to the manner born, ensuring that the score’s familiar strands cohabited peacefully with the aural novelties. The opening movement’s abrupt close sounded like an unfinished fragment; the rude trumpets that blared forth in a distant key during the finale were discordant heralds from a future time.

The Danish conductor might understandably have coupled the Fifth with the original version of the Violin Concerto too, but on this occasion he and soloist Pekka Kuusisto were content to perform the familiar score. Not that there was anything routine about a reading that proved revelatory in a way the symphony failed to be. This is where greatness reared its head, for I have seldom if ever heard a performance as steeped in pure Sibelian sound as that by Pekka Kuusisto. The genial Finn played his countryman’s concerto without a trace of showmanship while Dausgaard shaped an idiomatic accompaniment that was closer to the early symphonies of Sibelius than the big-boned Tchaikovskian virtuosity of so many exponents. I’ve heard this concerto a hundred times but it’s never sounded quite like this. It was a coming home. The remarkable Kuusisto more than earned sufficient applause to trigger an encore – in this case the yearning fourth of Sibelius’s Humoresques – before his interval cuppa.

Pekka Kuusisto and the BBC Scottish SO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Pekka Kuusisto and the BBC Scottish SO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Not that the youthful fiddle player had finished his work for the day. The aforementioned gimmicks – and I’m sorry to call them that but they were no more than passing diversions – were a pair of fantasies dreamt up by Dausgaard and harmonium player Timo Alakotila as preludes to the concert’s two main events. These two ‘Henry Wood Novelties’, each under ten minutes in duration and performed by Kuusisto and Alakotila together with three singers, Taito Hoffrén, Ilona Korhonen and Minna-Liisa Tammela, plus Vilma Timonen on the spinet-like kantele, set Finnish folk melodies against brief quotations from the concerto or symphony that followed. Any connection between these ballads, songs and snatches was tenuous at best since, unlike say Vaughan Williams, Sibelius did not depend on folk material for his compositions. Still, they were innocuously attractive and raised a smile.

****1