Prom 20: Kuusisto / BBCSSO / Dausgaard review – strikingly unusual twists

Royal Albert Hall, London
A new take on Sibelius is played with tremendous conviction by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Sibelius’s violin concerto and his Fifth Symphony are among his most admired and frequently performed works. So Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra could easily have left it at that for their Saturday evening Prom programme. This being the Proms, however, they offered two strikingly unusual twists.

The more substantial was to play the Fifth Symphony in its original 1915 version rather than the familiar final 1919 revision. Remarkably, given that Osmo Vänskä made a pioneer recording of the original score in 1995, this was the first time that the earlier version has ever been performed in this country. Once heard, however, it transforms one’s view of the final work. Dausgaard and the BBCSSO played it with tremendous conviction.

The 1915 version is longer than the later one, in four movements rather than three, and contains many passages, including some striking discords in the finale, that Sibelius eventually cut. It also starts and finishes differently, so there are no opening horn calls and the six stark chords and their separating silences at the end are absent, too. The dark shadow of the uncompromising Fourth Symphony hovers over this earlier score more than in the 1919 version. But the great revelation, and what made this performance so moving, is what the score shows about Sibelius as an artist: his bold reorderings and rescorings and his readiness to cut and tauten the symphonic argument.

Symphonic argument ... Thomas Dausgaard and Pekka Kuusisto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Symphonic argument ... Thomas Dausgaard and Pekka Kuusisto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Dausgaard surely missed a trick by not pairing the original Fifth with the equally rarely played original edition of the violin concerto from 1904, which Pekka Kuusisto gave in the standard revised score from the following year. Instead, the orchestra and soloist, supplemented by three singers, harmonium and a zither-like Finnish kantele, prefaced each piece with short preludes by Dausgaard and Timo Alakotila based on Finnish runes and fiddle music. These were designed to situate the concerto and symphony, which then followed without a break in each half of the concert, in a vernacular musical context. The approach was more successful with the concerto, which in Kuusisto’s restrained and thoughtful reading, seemed to emerge with infinite gentleness out of a deep pool of shared musical memory.

• Available on BBC Sounds. The Proms continue until 14 September.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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