Thomas Dausgaard conducted energetic performances of Bruch’s First Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, producing a great deal of fine playing though occasionally at the expense of long structure.

Thomas Dausgaard © Ulla-Carin Ekblom
Thomas Dausgaard
© Ulla-Carin Ekblom

Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud was soloist for the Bruch. He and Dausgaard seemed to have enormous fun with this staple of the violin repertoire, interacting closely, almost seeming to challenge the other to raise their game. The result was an honest and straightforward performance, moving in the softer moments and thrilling in the third movement. Kraggerud displayed superb musicianship in his fine control, neatly manicuring phrases into satisfying shapes. He also played with dark intensity in the Prelude, where the orchestra accompanied with fiery panache.

The contrast in the slow movement was marked. The descending theme which permeates the movement (and seems to reoccur in Strauss’ Alpensinfonie) was given a touching reverence by the lower strings, whilst Kraggerud’s high accompaniment glowed beautifully. The intensity developed steadily through the movement, giving shape to what can otherwise be a rather static passage. The third movement burst from Dausgaard’s baton at a breathlessly quick tempo. Orchestra and soloist responded with vigour, taking delight in the festive spirit of the theme. This was well maintained, remaining pleasingly airborne to the end, where there was a final exuberant charge to the final bars to cap a thoroughly entertaining performance. After a hearty reception, Kraggerud returned to the stage for one of the more brilliant encores I have seen: his own piece, Variation Suite, in duet with principal cellist Jonathan Aasgaard.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, one of his more frequently performed works, received a well-polished performance with many moments of great beauty. It was a shame that the individual components of the work did not quite seem to coalesce into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, but it was nonetheless very enjoyable.

It is sometimes suggested that a lot can be predicted about a performance of this symphony by the manner of the opening trumpet solo, and this seemed to hold true tonight. Rhys Owens’ solos were delivered with great confidence and security throughout, and his very first was direct and unfussy almost to the point of brusqueness. Much of the ensuing funeral march was similarly crisp and forward-looking. When the score permitted, the orchestral sound softened beautifully, but it did so without any compromise of forward momentum. The more astringent passages were given good intensity by the brass, and Dausgaard continued to press forward without excessive displays of emotion. Even the flute solo which closes the movement was relatively unfussy and light on vibrato. The second movement continued in a similarly muscular vein with a strong sense of purpose throughout. There was little relief from the trumpet-led storm until the sudden sunburst which occurs late in the movement. Here Dausgaard straightened up and fully indulged in a glimpse of the sunshine which will later close the symphony.

The Scherzo forms the entirety of the central part of the symphony. It veers between some breezy Ländler dances and impassioned outcries. The former lilted pleasingly, with a hint of toy soldiers in the muted trumpet and heavy glockenspiel playing. Principal horn Timothy Jackson gave a series of magnificent solos, at times softly lyrical and elsewhere dramatic and full-bodied. The string section gave some impressively flexible pizzicato passages, flitting between mourning and the grotesque. In the final bars Dausgaard pushed the tempo almost to the limit for an exciting close. Although the individual episodes within the movement all came off well, it was rather difficult to link them together into a cogent whole.

The famous Adagietto fourth movement came off very well. As the wind players sat back and relaxed, the strings began imperceptibly softly, their sound slowly blossoming into a glowingly warm colour. The first violins handled the soft corners with superb sensitivity. Dausgaard conducted very closely to shape each phrase into an elegant line. Occasionally it felt a little over-conducted, and the overall architecture of the music was threatened, but otherwise he did well to produce a moving performance.

No pause was taken between the fourth and fifth movements, and the spacing between the horn and woodwind solos was so broad as to give an entirely seamless transition. There was a crisp, spring-like feel in the music here, with plenty of vigour emerging after the first climax. The atmosphere still felt prone to capricious changes of direction, most of all in a surprising burst of quicker tempo for the coda. As with the whole symphony, though, the playing here was thrillingly direct and made for a bright finish to the evening. The audience responded with delight.