City Halls, Glasgow
It took Elgar until he was 50 to complete his First Symphony, the upside of which being its emotional maturity, technical mastery and a self-confidence through which the composer’s fingerprint dictates every level of its being. It was the major work in Thursday’s BBC SSO programme, a meaty challenge for its principal conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, and an epic, ear-catching conclusion to an evening that had hitherto blown hot and cold.
That’s not to say there was anything objectionable in soloist Martin James Bartlett’s performance of Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto, K466. Indeed, the 2014 BBC Young Musician winner was entirely consistent in his ultra-poetic delivery, an approach that underlined Mozart’s uncommon journey (for a concerto) into minor key realms, and allowed the pianist to challenge the orchestra’s escape attempts with visibly calming gestures and return to containment.
What his playing did require as a counter measure was steelier, more incisive finger work. For all its lyrical pleasantries it fell short in genuine sparkle. In turn the ghosts lurking within Mozart’s score struggled to surface other than benevolently, and little details, like Bartlett’s uneven ornamentation, transmitted low-voltage results. Where he did apply physical energy – those fiery cadenzas by Hummel (first movement) and Beethoven (finale) – the temperature briefly soared.
Bartlett’s encore, on the other hand, was absolutely sublime, a meltingly poised performance of Schumann’s “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples” from Kinderszenen.
Wigglesworth opened with a work he himself has championed, Jonathan Woolgar’s Canzoni et ricercari. Originally scored for 12 string players and premiered in Gloucester Cathedral in 2021, Wigglesworth suggested the composer create a version for enlarged string orchestra. Here it was, beefed up to full onstage and smaller offstage strings, and a performance all the more teasing for its theatrical surprise.
We were told the offstage strings were “hidden”, but not exactly where, so when they did release a screaming counter-offensive from behind us, the impact was nerve-tingling. The ensuing dialogue proved invigorating, the more extensive discourse on stage – a striking interplay of melancholic density and exhilarating frenzy – provoking varying degrees of bullish retort in return. The performance was wholesome, animated, if partly rough around the edges.
Full-blooded consistency in the Elgar gave this concert a lift beyond the ordinary. Wigglesworth was impressively composed throughout, establishing grounded, timeless authority in the opening slow march, and navigating the shifting contours and moods of the lengthy first movement with clean, meaningful discipline. Similarly, the frenzy of the second movement Allegro giving way uninterrupted to the glowing inner warmth of the Adagio was as heavenly as the composer intended. The finale, with its affirmative thematic retrospection, was a conclusive triumph.
No small thanks to a impassioned SSO for this, nor to such exquisite solo snippets as the self-assured consistency of leader Kanako Ito. There was scope, perhaps, for Wigglesworth to apply a more airborne, expansive sweep, a stepping back to embrace the biggest picture, yet there was more than enough in this performance to take away and savour long after the event.
The programme is repeated on Sunday at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh at 3pm.
Thursday’s performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC Sounds for 30 days