Music review: BBC SSO, City Halls, Glasgow

In the second of two concerts acting as dress rehearsals for this week’s coming tour to Salzburg by the BBC SSO, principal conductor Thomas Dausgard programmed a pair of powerful “B”s – Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 1 – enlisting for the Brahms the seasoned Russian septuagenarian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja.

Thomas Dausgaard PIC: Ulla-Carin Ekblom/BBC/PA Wire
Thomas Dausgaard PIC: Ulla-Carin Ekblom/BBC/PA Wire

BBC SSO, City Halls, Glasgow ***

The expectation, then, was for a magnificent counterbalance of one masterpiece against the other: the deeply probing symphonic argument of Brahms’ early concerto, a work wrung out over many years and revisions; against the spontaneous diversity in the Bartok, a joyousness at odds with the declining health of his final years.

Dausgaard seemed most at home in the latter, gleaning from the SSO a kaleidoscopic range of texture, nuance and attack. Out of the elemental gravitas of the introduction sprang an Allegro vivace bursting with zest. Then the wit of the Scherzo, its playful sequence of duets immune to the taming efforts of the burnished brass chorale.

Gorgeous effects, gritty violas countered by the buzz of waspish violins, lent ethereal layers to the Elegy, before Dausgaard implanted caustic irony in the Intermezzo and defiant vitality in the Finale.

What it lacked from Dausgaard was a sense of the big picture. He seemed too preoccupied with detail, reluctant to stand back and let the natural momentum take its course. Which is what killed much of the Brahms. It moved stodgily, in fits and starts. Nor was the erratic Leonskaja in characteristically good form. - Ken Walton