With a quick glance at the programme, you could be forgiven for thinking that you would be attending a fairly traditional concert, combining a contemporary work with a concerto and finishing with a large scale orchestral work. That was indeed what I was thinking as I sat back ready to enjoy some of my favourite music, but if I had come across Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto before, I would have known that his performance would be anything other than ordinary.

Pekka Kuusisto © Sonja Werner
Pekka Kuusisto
© Sonja Werner

Before his performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto we were treated to a BBC commission, the world premiere of the first part of Helen Grime's Two Eardley Pictures, inspired by a pair of paintings by Sussex-born artist Joan Eardley. This was a thoroughly engaging composition, with Grime's soundworld giving full justice to the bleak, stark landscape of the painting. The orchestral writing contained a variety of orchestral textures and jagged harmonies, which combined together well in a highly original manner.

This provided the curtain raiser for the entrance of Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who put the audience at ease before he even played a note, waving to the audience hidden behind the orchestra and enjoying the proximity of the prommers at the front of the arena, giving them a warm smile. The performance which followed was highly refreshing. One has certain pre-conceived ideas when listening to such a well known work as Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, and it is often too easy to be drawn along trance-like through its familiar contours as if you are listening to your favourite recording at home. What immediately struck me with this performance was that I was completely engaged and on the edge of my seat as if it was a work I had never heard before. Much in keeping with his character, Kuusisto's performance was not imbued with serious, heart on sleeve Romanticism, but was played almost cheekily, with Kuusisto bringing out the humour of the music, a grin never far from his face. He did not feel the need to over-play, never concerned at filling the cavernous spaces of the Royal Albert Hall, but instead drew the audience to him. The BBC Scottish Symphony under Thomas Dausgaard served as perfect accompanists and were on sparkling form all evening, reacting both to the soloist's lightness of touch but also playing the sweeping Tchaikovsky melodies with passion and warmth. A highlight was Kuusisto's cadenza - I have never seen a soloist make an audience laugh in a cadenza before. He reeled off the chromatic double-stopping with a showman-like flourish and after successfully negotiating a tricky harmonic, gave the leader of the orchestra a light-hearted relieved smile. The second movement of the concerto did show a more serious side to the soloist, with him adapting his tone to one of translucent simplicity. The final movement once more allowed soloist and orchestra to play off each other with an almost childlike delight, before concluding the work to loud cheers from a packed arena.

What followed showed yet another side to the talented soloist. We are often used to hearing maybe a piece of unaccompanied Bach as an encore, however what we were treated to was Kuusisto singing us a Finnish folksong, accompanying himself on his violin (with some duetting help from the orchestra's leader, Laura Samuel).  A further surprise was to follow, when Kuusisto rehearsed the audience and invited them to join in (in Finnish!) with the singing of the final chorus. This was his Proms debut and he very much endeared himself to the audience who no doubt are already eagerly awaiting his return in the future!

Another Russian classic, Stravinsky's Petrushka, formed the second half of the concert, giving us the chance to enjoy this talented orchestra and conductor on their own in all their glory.  Dausgaard steered the orchestra through the work's rhythmic complexities with apparent ease and the players responded with impressive precision.  The work essentially portrays the love and jealousy of three puppets, which is replicated in varying moods and textures in the score.  Dausgaard and the BBC SSO successfully juxtaposed the jocular moments with the more impassioned.  The orchestra's woodwind section were particularly impressive, with some characterful solos from the clarinet and oboe.  The performance as a whole contained a great deal of energy and momentum.  It was an orchestra and conductor on fine form whose playing was more than anything, exciting, and was a great advertisement for live music making.