Photo, Mark Allan

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, David Gutman

How to account for the generally smaller Proms audiences this year? COVID is certainly a factor though not the only one. One might speculate similarly about the career of Thomas Dausgaard, a vastly distinguished if perhaps under-appreciated conductor who would seem to be reducing his extra-Scandinavian engagements to the merest trickle. Why we know not. Or at least I don’t. He wore a face mask at this concert which may or may not be relevant. Past Proms with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have included superlative accounts of Mahler’s Tenth and Rachmaninov’s Second (both from 2017 at the start of his tenure) while 2019 brought us the first UK performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony in its rarely heard original version. Given that Dausgaard has already given his final concerts in Glasgow as the man in charge, this week’s Nielsen and Beethoven-dominated Proms take on a special significance.

We began with La valse, apt enough in its allusion to an imploding world but not usually the most sensible concert opener. Last year, John Wilson placed it immediately before the interval in a brilliant but rigid display with his own orchestra. This time the mood was quite different, the score minutely quarried for seams of sensuality and radiance, the sonic focus constantly mutating, inflected strings giving a no-doubt erroneous impression of unlimited rehearsal time. Henry Wood conducted the Proms premiere of La valse in 1921, having been responsible for its first UK airing at the Queen’s Hall the previous May. It won’t have sounded like this!

Least-played of the cycle at these concerts, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto began in similarly top-notch fashion after a substantial platform change. Much smaller orchestral forces (four basses) offered a splendid combination of old-style musicality and period-style rasp, string lines cleanly etched but never to the point of inexpressivity.  If it sometimes felt as if Tashkent-born Behzod Abduraimov’s differently contained, caressing tone and intimacy breathed the air of another planet, everything held together beautifully with no sense of strain. In another age a pianist with his glittering technique might have been a household name with an exclusive record contract (Abduraimov has flitted desultorily between labels). Apparently reluctant to provide an encore he eventually appeased the Promenaders with an initially less than precisely articulated slice of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

The Proms, so often in the vanguard of public taste, played little part in the dissemination of the music of Carl Nielsen. Until 1952, when Emil Telmányi played the Violin Concerto here with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Malcolm Sargent, not a note of the composer’s music had been heard. Wood had tried (and failed) to get that work into the 1939 schedule. The First, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies arrived in the 1960s for all that William Glock was either unable or unwilling to spell Nielsen’s name correctly, the Third (Sinfonia espansiva) as recently in 1990.

Dausgaard’s conception of the work is well known. It is I think the only symphonic Nielsen he has recorded commercially twice, in both audiovisual and audio-only formats. His Finale doesn’t over-egg the big tune as Leonard Bernstein was once accused of doing but nor in the first movement do we get as much of that breath-taking harmonic grinding of gears. While the results are doubtless closer to Nielsen’s down-to-earth aesthetic, might not a tempo a notch slower or perhaps just more consistently maintained bring greater continuity and build? On this occasion, the (scoreless) conductor plunged into the work before the audience was ready, the playing again wonderfully committed even if the string tone from my particular ‘3pm seat’ was a trifle Lilliputian once the brass got going: radio listeners will have been rewarded with a cleaner balance and more sense of antiphonally placed violins. The less obviously ‘symphonic’ inner movements sounded superb in the Hall nevertheless. True, the big-name hire of Benjamin Appl and Elizabeth Watts proved pointless in the Andante pastorale. Joining wordlessly and invisibly towards the end, apparently from some distance off stage, their contributions (where audible in this venue) did not enhance the artless, alfresco style of the reading.