BBC SSO / Wigglesworth
City Halls, Glasgow
A common mantra among many conductors is that less is often best. You see it in the most effective and moving performances, where a pertinent flick, an overarching gesture or, indeed, a visible cessation of any movement whatsoever may seem inversely proportionate to the heaving potency of the music, yet somehow the orchestra knows instinctively what is required of it and delivers with driven, burning intensity.
It’s something Ryan Wigglesworth might like to consider as he develops his imminent relationship as chief conductor with the BBC SSO. He was in Glasgow on Thursday performing a double act as soloist and conductor in this latest SSO afternoon concert, as well as attending the subsequent launch of what will be his first season in charge. The latter opens in September, when Wigglesworth officially takes up his new position (see the 2022-23 Season details in VoxCarnyx News).
Thursday’s programme wasn’t exactly as intended. It should have opened with the world premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Danse macabre, which was postponed “due to logistical constraints” to be replaced by Betsy Jolas’ Letters from Bachville. The now 95-year-old Franco-American composer describes her 2019 orchestral portrait of Leipzig, where Bach was its most famous Kantor, as a “Bach playlist”, filtering lightning quotes from the older composer through a fitful, cartoonesque score that ultimately seemed more skittish than cohesive.
It could have been both had Wigglesworth stepped back a little, allowing its spontaneous energy, its capricious fits and starts, to self-combust. Instead, there was a sense of over-prescribed containment that not only suppressed any natural fizz, but killed the impact of its many punctuating silences by drawing undue attention to them.
A quick reset and the piano was installed centre stage for Wigglesworth to play/direct Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K414. It was clear from the outset that this would be an elegant appraisal of a porcelain-textured work. The orchestral opening presented itself as gentile and rosy, Wigglesworth’s first solo entry responding with the same mannered deliberation and unchallenging understatement.
Such polite mutual interaction continued throughout, something of a nostalgic throwback to an earlier school of Mozart playing, which threw up enjoyable moments of nurtured poetry and reverential eloquence. There was never much intention, though, to probe below the surface, most noticeable in the slow movement, the piano’s first statement bland and unclear in its purpose, and instances throughout the concerto where the rhythmic interpretation felt more studied than instinctive. It was agreeable rather than dynamic, a mood endorsed by Wigglesworth’s ensuing encore, Harrison Birtwistle’s simple and delicately undulating piano miniature, Berceuse de Jeanne.
A work that really requires internal probing is Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, a harrowing symphonic enigma written when the composer was at a particularly low ebb, self-questioning and wrestling with his health. It was the final work in this programme and one equally testing for the performers as for the listener.
Wigglesworth’s approach was ever-thoughtful, SSO principal cello Rudi de Groote’s soulful solo emerging from the lower-string, tritone-infested depths of the gloomy opening like a beacon of hope, only to be countered by the suffocating orchestral bleakness that persists. The SSO – with Sibelius firmly in their DNA from the Osmo Vänskä days of the 1990s – responded with natural empathy to the bitterness and crying despair of the music, the thwarted optimism of the Scherzo, the aching waves of the Largo, the Finale’s frustrating, dissipating inconclusiveness.
Why, then, did this feel like a performance painted strictly by numbers rather than guided by a free hand? Wigglesworth has a tendency to beat, even subdivide, every breathing moment, the impact of which was evident in its occasionally awkward groundedness. And was there an issue with an orchestral layout that placed the elevated double basses across the rear, brought the concealed wind and brass down to ground level behind the strings, and most importantly threw the glockenspiel far to the side where its key prominence in the Finale was strangely muted?
These are early days in the Wigglesworth-SSO partnership. The new season throws up plenty opportunities for them to assimilate that relationship. As always, each can benefit and learn from the other. In time, we’ll find out how explosive the chemistry will be.
This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds