Sometimes at the Proms, you’ll spot the soloist from the first half taking a seat in the Stalls – or even sneaking into the Arena to join the Prommers – to watch the performance of the symphony. Not so Pekka Kuusisto. After performing in both halves – The Lark Ascending and Thomas Adès’ Märchentänze – Kuusisto played a touching encore in tribute to his older brother, Jaakko, and his mother, who died earlier this year. Then, just when you’d expect him to be unwinding backstage, pouring himself a glass of something strong, Kuusisto crept to a desk at the back of the first violins and instead poured his heart into Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony

Pekka Kuusisto and the Finnish RSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

That the violinist was joining his fellow Finns only made it more special. Naturally enough, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra have Sibelius’ music running through their veins. This was their sixth Prom and they’ve brought him in their luggage on each and every occasion. But this was the first time performing here with their new Chief Conductor, a very familiar face in these parts, Nicholas Collon. He’s just finishing his first season at the helm in Helsinki and has already recorded his first Sibelius disc with them. 

Conducting a Finnish orchestra in Sibelius must be like a rite of passage for a non-native. Collon passed the test convincingly, for this Fifth was the best thing in the concert. His style is very precise and he drew plenty of detail from the score: a bassoon lament over icy strings; the flute echoing the trumpet; the clean pizzicato in the second movement. Nothing was exaggerated; the double bass attacks during the surging horn “swan” theme in the finale weren’t overly percussive. Polished and persuasive, if not always spine-tingling or monumental. 

Nicholas Collon
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

I’ve no idea how rough the Gulf of Finland is, but if this performance of La Mer was anything to go by, it’s a good deal calmer than the sea Debussy had in mind. Dawn here felt more like a mountain spring, a cool watercolour that took rather too long to heat up. There was plenty of pointillist precision in Jeux de vagues and, although a snarling contrabassoon promised a rough ride, the Dialogue du vent et de la mer rarely felt angry. 

Kuusisto’s Lark Ascending was unconventional, but then, Kuusisto is not a conventional violinist.  A lot of Vaughan Williams’ score hovers around the pianissimo mark, but it does rise to a forte and even fortissimo in some phrases. Kuusisto portrayed it with such whispered fragility throughout that twitchers in the Gallery may have struggled to identify this lark at all. Daringly different or self-indulgent? It probably depends how much of it you heard. BBC Radio 3 – or the front rail of the Arena – would have been your safest bet. 

Pekka Kuusisto greets the Prommers
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Märchentänze was much more Kuusisto’s style, unsurprisingly as Adès wrote it for him. It’s quirky and kooky, with lots of folksong references – “extrovert and naughty” as the violinist described it in the programme note. The orchestral accompaniment was fiendishly intricate, Collon at one stage cueing in players by counting on his fingers, but there was also a sense of joy: a dance down the pub turning a little woozy and boozy; a contrabassoon fart joke; the violin being strummed like a banjo. Adès was even able to take a bow courtesy of Kuusisto's iPad! Extrovert and naughty? What larks! 

***11