There was a certain piquancy about the guest appearance of the Danish Thomas Dausgaard with the BBC Philharmonic. He has achieved something of a reputation as the man who isn't taking over the orchestra when Yan Pascal Tortelier steps down later this year. Dausgaard was rumoured to be a strong contender and even made his Proms debut with the BBCPO last year. But the plume of white smoke above the BBC in Manchester just before Christmas signalled the decision to appoint the Italian Gianandrea Noseda – an even more unfamiliar figure, but one whom no less than Valery Gergiev has backed as a winner.
So what would Dausgaard make of Messiaen's L'Ascension and Beethoven's Choral Symphony? Would he pull out all the stops, leaving audience and players unsure as to whether or not the right choice had been made? Admired in some quarters for his painstaking attention to detail and for his finely sculpted conducting, he is undoubtedly serious in purpose and conscientious in execution. But he seems less confident about encouraging a particular orchestra's individual character and sound.
In adopting an unaccustomed lay-out for the string desks of the BBCPO – violins divided on either side of the conductor, and cellos and violas in the middle – he reduced the impact of the normally vibrant strings. This arrangement, producing a less cohesive, even thin, sound, had a fairly devastating effect on the Beethoven, but was less harmful in Messiaen's L'Ascension, in which the material of the four symphonic meditations is largely presented by individual sections anyway. First brass, then woodwind, and, in the tranquil finale, ethereal strings on their own, dominate the proceedings with the whole orchestra coming emphatically together in the jubilant third movement scherzo, described by the composer as "a sort of dance before the Ark".
Even in this early, pre-birdsong score, Messiaen's imaginative use of instrumental sonorities is already evident, and though the ensemble here was occasionally uncertain, in the glowing colours and richness of musical timbre there could be no mistaking some of the characteristics that distinguish his later orchestral masterpiece, Turangalîla-symphonie.
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with its enormous span, requires more long-term structural thinking. With Dausgaard's attention evidently on time ahead rather than the immediate present, his sights set on delivering a carefully packaged performance from memory, important instrumental and vocal solos were all too often passed by. The performance never really took flight, the current never flowed. While the excellent City of Birmingham Chorus blazed, the orchestra and soloists appeared to be encumbered by conducting that didn't actually seem to be going anywhere, least of all in the slow movement.
The vain attempt by Anthony Rolfe Johnston to impose his own tenor tempo on a very fast choral finale merely added to the impression that there were two, if not many more, interpretations going on at once. One would have been enough had it been more convincing.