“You are probably not going to be whistling the tunes on your way home, so why are you here tonight?” Conductor Thomas Dausgaard gently goaded the pre-performance crowd as he explained that there is probably no other composer whom you could program three symphonies into a single evening. Sibelius was working on his last three symphonies simultaneously, revising the Fifth while writing the last two, so it made perfect sense for us to explore the journey, from the ‘flying swans’ in the Fifth through the more personal Sixth to the concise single movement Seventh. Dausgaard explained that Sibelius wrote the symphonies for a small standard orchestra – there are no arrays of percussion, tuba or contrabassoon, yet the musical world he creates somehow sounds more than the sum of its parts. Referencing the Finnish landscape, there is an extraordinary inner force of nature and a magnetic strangeness that haunts the listener.

Thomas Dausgaard © Per Morten Abrahamsen
Thomas Dausgaard
© Per Morten Abrahamsen
The Fifth is probably the best known of the three and Dausgaard, conducting from memory, directed the orchestra with fingertip precision, drawing ever-moving patterns of light and shade from his players. From the opening distant horns, building to the first climax with that teasing hint of the finale, there was a light precision to the music in the woodwind, with the busy trademark divided flutes punching through the texture. There was plenty of contrast between rich brass and the more delicate bassoon passages, before the tension and tempo increased to a gallop at the end of the first movement. Precise pizzicato in the strings with bright woodwind in the Andante was followed by the final Allegro, played as if discovering a cool-water freshness round each musical turn. The wonderful swans were there too, adding a dramatic spatial naturalness until the astounding sequence of crashing chords with complete silence between them brought it to a close.

Following on from the Fifth, the Sixth was immediately more personal, starting with a simple melody in the upper strings and with the violas injecting melancholy before a cello tune burst through. Sibelius can turn a bright melody immediately dark with the roll of timpani of growl of brass in a different key and Dausgaard brought out the subtle changes in the music splendidly. Using Finnish folk tunes and a harp to brighten the landscape, Sibelius said that the symphony reminded him of the “scent of the first snow”. In the Allegretto, the strings built up layers of sound, and with the violas on the outside of the orchestra, it was as if Dausgaard had taken a paintbrush in sweeping washes across the stage. The ever changing dynamics were like a breeze moving the pine treetops, particularly when double notes in the violins were played dancing at the tippety-top of the bows. The depth of string playing in this concert was particularly fine, the dynamic leader Laura Samuel spreading her infectious enthusiasm right to the farthest desks. There was a surprising purity to this symphony, but strangeness too as unison strings and bold brass simply drifted off enigmatically into thin air.

Finally, to the single movement Seventh, full of brooding themes, changing tempos, many abstract ideas and referencing music from Kaatur. Simple scales developed into layers of themes that overlapped with other themes, a passage of surprising legato strings with ravishing cellos and violas giving way to a thrilling trombone moment. From an exciting rallentando, Dausgaard built the brassy layers up to a glorious ending.

It was interesting to hear all three works in a single sitting, and although I was most familiar with the Fifth, it was the Sixth which was most magical, full of dappled sunlight and shadows and just beguilingly unusual. Thomas Dausgaard becomes Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish next year, and after the way the band played for him in this concert, particularly the strings, I am looking forward to hearing more.