Joanne Lunn, Hallé Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth – Mozart & Mahler

Joanne Lunn (soprano, above), Hallé Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor and piano)

Mozart Ch’io mi scordi di te, K505 (1786)
Mozart Symphony no.34 in C major, K338 (1780)
Mahler Symphony no.4 in G major (1892, 1899-1900, rev. 1901-10)

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; Wednesday 8 November 2017

From 24 November you will be able to listen to a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of this programme – link to follow

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was a nicely programmed afternoon concert, an attractive set of pieces with a Viennese connection that could initially be seen as lightweight but which were anything but.

First up was an inventive choice, Mozart’s standalone concert aria Ch’io Mi Scordi De Te?, a tribute to the soprano Nancy Storace. Written for soprano with piano and reduced orchestral forces, the composer used a text attributed to Lorenzo Da Ponte, who wrote the libretto for Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte. Joanne Lunn sang with great purity of tone, with her high notes particularly well-judged, while Ryan Wigglesworth (below) directed with sensitivity from the piano in the tender duet sections, where the orchestra felt like eavesdroppers.

This was followed by an extremely tasteful reading of Mozart’s Symphony no.34. This is a work that doesn’t get to poke its head above the parapet as much as its neighbouring ‘named’ symphonies in the composer’s output such as the Haffner and Linz. Wigglesworth chose his speeds well, so that the lovely Viennese textures were just the right density for Mozart’s lighter (but not lightweight) melodies. The energetic Hallé strings went well with the more graceful woodwind, particularly in the joyful finale, while the serene slow movement was also a highlight.

Mahler’s Symphony no.4 is, on face value, his most ‘classical’, following traditions established by Schubert and the like, innovatively adding a soprano for the final movement, a child’s vision of heaven. Wigglesworth’s interpretation was carefully thought out and extremely well played, the woodwind of the Hallé rising to the considerable challenges posed by this deceptively difficult symphony.

On the surface, the Fourth is grace and charm personified, but the cracks often show in the music, the lower you go in the orchestra. The first movement was crisp and clear, a bright outdoors scene beautifully painted, but a chill shadow was cast in the second movement thanks to leader Paul Barritt’s solo contribution on a specially tuned violin, not to mention those ominous rumblings in the bass. The slow movement had a beautiful serenity but the feeling of slight unease persisted, quelled briefly by a magnificent evocation of the gates of heaven, Wigglesworth securing rich, bright colours from the orchestra.

Lunn returned to the stage for the child’s vision of heaven, a radiant encounter but with the macabre orchestral elements present and correct. Wigglesworth consistently found the delicacy of Mahler’s scoring, as well as the ghoulish apparitions that are never far from the surface of this enchanting piece.

While this concert is not yet available online, you can listen to a Spotify playlist of the works performed below:

In concert – Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra at the Barbican

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Picture (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Barnabás Kelemen (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (above)

Barbican Hall, London / Wednesday 2 March

This typically well-planned BBC Symphony Orchestra concert had a surprise or two in store. Bookending the quartet of works on display were two pieces by Stravinsky – the Agon ballet from 1957 and the Symphony of Psalms.

They provided a good illustration of how Stravinsky changed styles as a composer, and how in spite of that he retained a fascination with older polyphonic styles. Some of the sound worlds in Agon, a set of twelve tableaux for twelve dancers, frequently alighted on melodic figures or chords that felt ‘old’, holding dissonances and deliberately leaving chords unresolved.

Agon is viewed as the work where Stravinsky starts to take his leave from a more obviously tonal approach to composition. In this performance it was lean yet colourful, with excellent solos from leader Stephanie Gonley, mandolin player Nigel Woodhouse, harpist Sioned Williams and Christian Geldsetzer and Richard Alsop, the two BBC SO lead double bass players, who nailed their otherworldly harmonics on each appearance.

The Symphony of Psalms was more obviously outgoing but saved its greatest emotional impact for the quieter music, the closing pages of ‘Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum’ (‘Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord’) from the BBC Symphony Chorus given out with softly oscillating orchestral figures.

Stravinsky uses the lower end of the orchestra in this piece, with no violins or violas, adding extra percussive punch from two pianos – all aspects that Wigglesworth brought forward in a taut performance. Great credit should however go to chorus master Hilary Campbell, who was unfortunately not mentioned in the concert programme. She is clearly popular with the singers, and helped secure that extra degree of accuracy and emotional involvement. One of Stravinsky’s most cinematic scores, it was in this performance a powerful statement of affirmation.

Wigglesworth positioned his own Violin Concerto modestly after the interval – I say modestly as in its five years of existence the piece has already ramped up an impressive number of performances. On this evidence its status is well-deserved, for it is a tightly structured unit of no little tension, the soloist searching for his ultimate melody while the reduced, ‘classical’ orchestra try and find their ultimate tonality.

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Soloist Barnabás Kelemen (above) was a macho presence, with a little too much testosterone at times when the violin was surging forward, but he balanced that with some incredibly sensitive playing at the quietest moments of the piece, where the audience strained on his every note. Both melody and tonality were resolved in moments that confirmed Wigglesworth as a composer of impressive style and instinct.

The one dud in the program was Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from the opera Peter Grimes, seen through the visual projections of Tal Rosner. This was a commission from four American orchestras in Britten’s centenary year 2013, with each interlude was set to the images of the city from which the commission came. For its UK premiere Rosner added a portrait of London to go with the other orchestral excerpt from the opera, the Passacaglia. This was centrally placed, keeping the order in which the scenes appear in the opera.

Although well played by the orchestra, the idea sadly fell flat on several levels. Although Britten spent time in America – and indeed began Peter Grimes there – the work’s roots are so entrenched in Suffolk that to suggest anything other than the Aldeburgh coastline through the music feels completely wrong. Rosner’s constructions were skilled, and had a few fine moments where close-up images of the Golden Gate Bridge rotated in technicolour.

Sunday Morning, with its bright building blocks of orchestral colour, was revealed to be a minimalist precursor of the music of John Adams through the clever constructions of its visuals. However despite Britten’s more universal appeal as a composer these days, Peter Grimes surely belongs wholeheartedly in Suffolk – and any suggestion to the contrary, however well intended, feels wrong.

 

Vaughan Williams – Symphonies nos. 4 & 8

Featured recording: Vaughan Williams – Symphonies nos. 4 & 8 (London Philharmonic Orchestra)
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Two very different Vaughan Williams symphonies presented in live recordings by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with the angry, resentful Fourth conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth and the seraphic Eighth under the direction of the orchestra’s chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski

What’s the music like?

Of all his nine symphonies, the Fourth, completed in 1935, is the one that sounds least like Vaughan Williams’ work. If you didn’t know the composer, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a wartime Russian work. Such is the explosion of anger at the start, the ongoing the desolation in the slow movement, the very notion of VW being a ‘green and pleasant land’ composer is thrown right out of the water.

The Eighth Symphony of 1955 is much more amiable in mood. It is not well known among the composer’s output but there are some lovely sonorities here, such as the beautiful textures at the start, where Vaughan Williams harnesses a number of percussion instruments. Celesta and vibraphone blend beautifully to make music that sounds as if it originated a lot further east than the North Sea! The large percussion section also includes three tuned gongs. The middle two movements dispense with these instruments – the third becoming a gorgeous romance for strings – while the closing minutes are full of joyous music.

Does it all work?

This is a disc of two halves. The Symphony no.4 is given a strong performance but feels rushed at times, especially in the fourth movement, where Ryan Wigglesworth zips through a lot of the arguments so fast that they sound just a bit perfunctory.

That said, the fall-out at the end of the first movement makes quite an impact, the coda sounding truly desolate, while the second movement Scherzo is spot on, thanks to a superb bassoon contribution.

In contrast the Eighth Symphony receives an affectionate performance under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski, enjoying the use of the percussion at the start, mysterious yet rather exotic too. The Cavatina is the emotional centre of this piece, ending with a lovely cello solo that rises through the layers at the end. From this point the last movement Toccata is a joyous celebration, sounding English in its folksy tunes but again enjoying the shimmering sounds the tuned percussion have to offer.

Is it recommended?

Jurowski’s performance of the Eighth is recommended without reservation, a beautifully constructed performance that enjoys the unusual orchestral colours but which is keenly emotive too. The recording from London’s Royal Festival Hall is excellent.

Wigglesworth’s Fourth – though well played – is good but not so fine that it displaces the formidable competition among its rivals. Recordings conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, Vernon Handley and Bernard Haitink are all preferable in this respect.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here: