Whoever curated last night's BBC SO concert, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, needs a medal. Not only were the pieces united by virtue of being composed at the same time during the dark years of the First World War, but also each composer seems to find something passionately troubled to say which reflected their vintage – an unusual combination of neglected works, two of which are masterpieces.
The BBC SO was on razor-sharp form from the off. The angular energy generated by Dausgaard was palpable in the opening cacophony of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite. The whole performance went on to revel in the sonic excesses that the ambitious young composer conjured up in order to impress Diaghilev. Sadly, all these riches left the capricious impresario cold and a planned ballet project, called Ala and Lolly, was dropped. Never one to waste good material, Prokofiev quickly arranged the fragments into the Scythian Suite. Lacking the substance of the two works that followed it in the programme, the suite has the virtue of being exquisitely scored, very loud in places, and full of wonderfully individual melodies.
After being battered by the suns' rays in the final ecstatic bars of the Prokofiev, eardrums were still ringing when the ruminative opening bars of Bloch's Schelomo insinuated their way into the hall. Chinese cellist Jian Wang instantly found just the right balance of passion and tenderness to set the tone for the whole performance.
This criminally underperformed work is a gift for cellists and should surely be programmed as much as its near contemporary, the Elgar concerto. Largely a lament on a huge scale, Schelomo feels deeply personal – but, with its grand scale and lavish orchestral outbursts, it also seems to resonate on a more universal level. In this wonderful performance, Jian Wang demonstrated why such generous praise has been heaped upon him recently. Rock-solid technique, firm, unforced tone and a perfectly judged interpretation of this turbulent score, were all in evidence, and this was clearly appreciated by the audience. Dausgaard and the BBC SO were obviously inspired by the commitment of the soloist and gave excellent support where needed, as well as sweeping him aside in the massive climaxes as required.
I have to confess that the final work in the concert, Nielsen's Symphony no. 4, "The Inextinguishable" (1916) is one of my favourite symphonies. As well as being the composer's best work, it seems to sum up so much that has gone before in the symphony, as well as pointing the way forward. It never outstays its welcome, and its emotional scope is equal to current symphonic favourites such as those by Shostakovich, Mahler and Sibelius. The only problem with the work in performance is finding the right balance between the forward momentum and its reflective interludes. The overall effect should be of a single sweep of sound from the dramatic D minor opening to the miraculously satisfying E major closing passage. Many conductors find Nielsen's individual musical language hard to grasp, and some performances try to push the music into moulds that are more familiar them.
For the Danish conductor Dausgaard, it was obvious from the start that he spoke Nielsen's language. The opening Allegro movement had all the necessary energy and never flagged. The brief, bucolic Allegretto manages to achieve in less than five minutes what could take Mahler 20. This leads directly into the deeply felt slow movement, with its tone of lament reflecting the mood of Schelomo. However, it was in the dramatic finale that Daugaard and the BBC SO found their deepest reserves of energy and vigour. Featuring a famous battle between two timpanists, it was the moment in the concert when the presence of the Great War that was then ravaging Europe was felt most keenly. Dramatically bringing the second timpanist on stage just for this movement, the waves of sounds they produced swept across the orchestra like gunfire. When the battle is abruptly over and the music suddenly takes on a radiant E major, it was obvious that Dausgaard had achieved what eludes so many other conductors, making this incredible shift sound totally logical and deeply moving. A unique moment in music that is totally devoid of bombast, but poetic in showing us the "inextinguishable" quality of hope.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS