Most people will have been introduced to the music of Sibelius with Finlandia. It remains arguably his most popular piece and was originally part of seven tableaux illustrating episodes in Finland’s past, entitled “Finland Awakes”. It therefore made a good curtain-raiser for the first concert in a complete cycle of his symphonies at this year’s Proms, in which three works were linked by association with the upsurge of Finnish national feeling during repressive Tsarist rule. Under the direction of their principal conductor designate, Thomas Dausgaard, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra revealed at the outset a number of key ingredients in a successful performance: dark-hued strings, a brooding quality to the woodwind, dramatic timpani and a touch of menace in the opening brass chords.

Thomas Dausgaard © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Thomas Dausgaard
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Dausgaard clearly knows his Sibelius and he conducted the entire concert from memory, with plenty of physical energy emanating from the rostrum. The first and second symphonies need, however, to be handled with care if they are not to come across as a succession of brightly-lit episodes. This has led to the composer being downplayed in German-speaking countries, but not only there, as being the progenitor of superior film music.

Picture for a moment a landscape of frozen ground on which stand huddled dark sentinels of mysterious forests, with fragments of sound picked up on an icy wind. And there you have the opening of the First Symphony with its hauntingly evocative clarinet solo, eloquently played by Yann Ghiro, followed by a swirl of strings whipped up into the first of several brass-laden climaxes. But in an overuse of the latter there also lies a danger, a tendency for the attention of the conductor to be focused on the next blast from the elements rather than an awareness of organic development from within the score. Throughout this E minor work there are moments of great subtlety and inner repose, as in the magical return of the solo clarinet together with the harp towards the end of the first movement. Too often the strings, though agile enough elsewhere when called upon to provide forward momentum, could not command the depth of tonal resources in this wide acoustic to do full justice to the all-important shifting harmonic undercurrents. Even with eight double-basses playing, the bass line was frequently inaudible and the erumpent brass rarely held in check. Dausgaard was at his best in revealing the primary colours, most notably in the Scherzo with its Beethovenian grit and forward drive, here underpinned by titanic timpani playing, but less so in the chiaroscuro qualities that give Sibelius his atmospheric appeal.

Beethoven is also something of an influence in the Second Symphony, not least in the bridge-like passage that links the final two movements, and the European tradition in which Sibelius himself was grounded is evidenced by the Wagner-like treatment of the brass and the melodic invention that characterised Tchaikovsky’s music. But, like Brahms, Sibelius came to the symphony relatively late. He had already written some 30 other works by the time of the First Symphony and was getting on for 40 when his D major symphony was given its première. And, as he admitted in a letter to his long-time private secretary Santeri Levas, “My symphonies are a terrible struggle.” Beethoven needs a sense of struggle for the apotheosis to work, and Sibelius can easily sound glib if the cinematographic elements are given the upper hand. Despite an extended family sojourn to Italy during which the work was sketched, there is no mistaking that this is a thoroughly northern work. Its roots too are utterly symphonic: all the musical ideas in the opening movement derive in some way from the rising phrase with which it opens (F sharp-G-A). These organic connections were less to the fore in Dausgaard’s reading, whereas he was particularly skilled at capturing the withdrawn qualities of the extended slow movement, in which the sense of a sub-arctic chill was never far away, and the sombre-toned bassoons together with the growling brass punctuation suggested dark mythical creatures emerging from the vast expanse of forest.

An absence of muscularity robbed the Scherzo of greater rhythmic propulsion and demonic fury, not helped by occasional imprecisions of ensemble, and the oboe-led repose in the Trio section was hurried along a little too much for my liking. The peroration in the final coda would have been rather more satisfying had the preceding disparate elements – all too obvious in this concert – been blended with a keener awareness of orchestral sound and texture.

Ultimately, most of the ingredients were there for the making of a classic Martini: plenty of ice in suitably chilled and thin-stemmed glasses, a dash of aromatic vermouth and a generous slug of transparent gin. But it was a case of the glass shaken, not stirred.