BBC SSO / Wigglesworth
City Halls, Glasgow
With the programme brochure boldly trumpeting the word “Mahler”, the intention was clear – the intended focal point and mighty peroration of this BBC SSO season opener was to be Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. That it emerged as the least exciting event in a long evening didn’t so much lead to overall disappointment – though as such it defied expectations – as throw the spotlight onto a side of SSO conductor Ryan Wigglesworth that is absolutely his forte.
This was the Scottish premiere of his own Piano Concerto, written originally for the 2019 BBC Proms, and played in this instance by the unshakeable Scots pianist Steven Osborne. It was the one moment in Thursday’s concert where the stars fully aligned. Osborne, it goes without saying, commanded the stage with a performance that magically fused the music’s glistening fragility with its expansive climactic peaks. The SSO, responding to Wigglesworth’s natural mastery of the score, offered its own multicoloured insight. In total, the experience was breathtaking.
The most touching aspect of this performance was its detailed sensitivity. The writing is beautifully concise, precise and tantalisingly understated. It was like that from the offset – elemental motifs pithily suggested by the orchestra, taken up by the pianist and jointly toyed with in an opening Arioso notable for its alluringly poetic journey.
Even in the Scherzo, where Wigglesworth explores a more austere, lightly modernist sound world, the assimilation of microcosm and macrocosm was deftly fulfilling. The Notturno, playing ghostly polytonal mischief with a Polish folk melody (think Lutoslawski), and running straight into the final Gigue, maintained its volatile intoxication, ultimately dissembling into a valedictory piano solo.
What came before was also something of a discovery, the Heroic Overture by Johanna Müller-Hermann. She lived and worked in Vienna at its fin-de-siècle height, clearly conscious of the prevailing winds of stylistic change. In this stormy overture, one eye is on the turbulent excesses of Richard Strauss, the other looking tentatively at the new revolutionary order of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Wigglesworth recognised that in a solid but sensuous performance, ripely and robustly delivered.
If all that ought to have been the perfect set-up for Mahler Four, the outcome was less impressive. Wigglesworth presided over an unsettled opening, his tempi changes unconvincing, in some cases awkward. What he did achieve from the SSO in the second movement was clarity of texture, but stodgier moments – in relation to orchestral tone – killed the magic.
Even in the slow movement, often exquisite with shafts of timeless beauty peeking through, there was still a sense the conductor was painting by numbers, and by the time we reached the finale and its sublime Das Himmlische Leben for solo soprano, any hope of achieving the truly sublime had dissipated. Soloist Sally Matthews did not seem entirely comfortable in this instance, her delivery unfocused, periodically insubstantial.
It made a long concert seem longer, which begged the question, why play an encore? The applause had all but died down, and many were already leaving the hall when Wigglesworth announced “more Mahler”. It was an error of judgement.