BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Vaughan Williams’ plaintive and popular musical depiction of avian levitation, The Lark Ascending. is, without doubt, a beautiful piece of writing, the solo violin soaring heavenwards over the orchestra’s dreamy pastoral landscape. What really helps, and which counters its tendency these days to overexposure, is a violinist who can look at it with fresh eyes. I rather liked the way Dutch soloist Rosanne Philippens imbued her BBC SSO performance with a subtle, enhanced degree of animation.

There was a chirpiness to this lark, spontaneous rhythmic frissons capturing a scene more alive, more instinctive, than the many misty-eyed performances we’ve become used to. The whimsical unpredictability of Philippens’ interpretation, alertly backed up by conductor Mark Wigglesworth, was a refreshing surprise.

As was the ensuing, unscripted performance of Ravel’s flirtatious Tzigane, which turned the encore spot into another fully-fledged, quasi-concerto experience. In this swashbuckling single-movement pastiche, fired by the same extrovert virtuoso spirit as Liszt’s gypsy salon pieces, Philippens could really let herself go, in the rhapsodic swagger of the unaccompanied opening and the accumulating pyrotechnics that fuelled the final, action-packed adrenalin rush.

It was in the latter, too, that Wigglesworth and the SSO found more solid, common ground. Previously, in Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, uneven entries had lent unease at the start, though soon found a surer footing en route to the unfolding ecstasy of the Liebestod. 

That excitable compatibility carried over to the second half, and a power-packed performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No 1. It’s a work that has defined much of the SSO’s past – intense and fiery under Jerzy Maksymiuk in the 1980s, steely and electrifying under Osmo Vänskä in the 1990s – and here they responded immediately to the more heated and outwardly passionate vision of Wigglesworth.

The first movement, some iffy solo intonation in the slow introduction aside, bore a self-contained satisfaction, defiant and fulminating. The lower-grade tempestuousness of the slow movement, and the pounding rhythmic energy of the Scherzo created a suitably heightened expectancy for the thrusting turbulence of the Finale, and its surprise pizzicato sign-off. 

Everything these days has a tendency to harbour subliminal resonances to the turmoil on Russia’s borders. It was hard not to read something into the nationalist zeal implicit in this symphony, given Finland’s neighbouring geographical position. This performance hit a powerful, if unintentional, note in that respect.

Ken Walton

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available for 30 days after broadcast via BBC Sounds.
The programme is repeated live at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Sun 13 March at 3pm.