In his Invocation to Light, the poet John Milton has a memorable line which resonated strongly as Thomas Dausgaard, in his final concert as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, opened the Seventh Symphony of Sibelius: “The rising world of waters dark and deep”. I have sat through many a memorable performance of this compact, enigmatic and unsettling symphony. Some have been elemental, granitic, savage even. Few have been as atmospheric and compelling as this one.

Thomas Dausgaard conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

At the start, seemingly from a dank and murky cellar beneath our feet, the string lines moved gently and tenderly like an old man feeling his way through the gloom of the night, horns providing the merest daubs of colouration. After gradually emerging into the full light, this symphony then retreated into the depths at the close. As Sir Colin Davis once remarked, “The last bar is like closing the coffin lid”. So many magical details, complete with resplendent orchestral playing, were magisterially conveyed by Dausgaard: the icy glint to the woodwind, the lightness of the string articulation in the Vivacissimo section, like powdered snow being blown along by a temperate wind, the majestic trombone sound soaring above but never flattening the supportive strings below. 

Jan Lisiecki and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Jan Lisiecki is clearly a soloist who likes his contrasts, especially in Beethoven. This was a thought-provoking and very individual performance of the Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, in which he seemed to be stretching the extremes as far as they could go. The opening statement was as soft and hushed as I can recall, beautifully echoed by whispered strings, Dausgaard watching Lisiecki like a hawk throughout and matching the accompaniment to his soloist’s conception. Later, Lisiecki seized on all the opportunities for marcato and staccato phrasing, giving the Finale a slightly militaristic quality in its sharp corners and jauntiness of spirit. The contrasts were there too in the theatricality of the central Andante, Dausgaard capturing Beethovenian gruffness in the clipped orchestral response to the angelic voice Lisiecki found, the furies quickly tamed. As so often though when contrasts are over-emphasised, it was the middle that was left to look after itself. In his encore Lisiecki demonstrated his extraordinary qualities as an interpreter of Chopin, in a Nocturne as lustrous and exquisitely turned as you are likely to hear.

BBC SSO timpanist in the Arena
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

How often do you take in the forest atmosphere? How often does Dausgaard, I wondered at the end of his traversal of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony. The Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a form of eco-therapy, designed to engender a state of mindfulness. What was fascinating about Dausgaard’s view of this work was not so much the teeming energy he unleashed at the start and later in the volcanic eruptions that pepper the score. It was the intensity of his light touch, the delicacy and tenderness he found in the mutterings of bassoons, the bird-like chirping of flutes, the rays of sunshine penetrating the canopy of trees above down to the forest floor. I was struck too by the way Dausgaard made the brief Poco allegretto movement come close to echoing the sounds of the sylvan world. The hushed playing was quite exceptional in its precision and tonal variation, the patination of the string pizzicati, the woodwind voices heard as if from afar.

It is the final movement with its spasmodic explosions from the two timpani players that is seen as ultimately life-affirming, the inextinguishable quality of life itself. Dausgaard’s only miscalculation here was to have the second player positioned in the arena, away from the fray. Not so much a contest, more an echo.