Tag Archives: Haydn

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

In these lean times, when orchestral forces are pared to spartan COVID-friendly levels, it says a lot of a conductor when he can glean such richness of string tone as Mark Wigglesworth did from the BBC SSO in this latest Radio 3 live broadcast.

And it came with a dash of style, particularly in the two Classical symphonies that bookended the programme: Haydn’s spirited Symphony No 1 (yes, he had to start somewhere); and Mozart’s Symphony No 40 (the second of his final three symphonies, not that he envisaged them as such).

The instant joie-de-vivre of the Haydn, a natural effusion of craftsmanship and ingenuity integrating prevalent Mannheim symphonic traits with newfound Austrian zest, produced a stimulating opener: nothing trenchant or intellectually taxing, just a no-nonsense, honest appreciation of the music’s charm and integrity. As with the later Mozart, there seemed a conscious limitation on string vibrato, which gave this performance a refreshingly raw, period countenance. 

If there’s anything Haydnesque about Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, it’s the Soviet composer’s preoccupation with the cellular motif. Identified immediately by its brusque four-note monogram, Shostakovich powers his concerto with a single-minded insistence that borders on violence, which is why soloist Steven Isserlis refuses to play it on his Stradivarius. “For this, you need an instrument that doesn’t mind being hit,” he revealed in his pre-performance interview.

Despite the warning, Isserlis was careful not to go ballistic. Yes, there was forthright assertiveness and fiery detachment in his opening gambit, but this was not an exercise in basic extremes. Instead, there was a real sense of journey, the opening movement tempered with gnawing undertones, the Moderato equally cautious of overstatement, the cadenza shifting momentously from ruminative soliloquy to fiery springboard unleashing the rumbustious peasantry of the relentless finale. 

Fine horn playing, too, from SSO principal Alberto Menendez Escribano, and the lighter addition of a Kabalevsky dance (No 3 of 5 Studies for solo cello), played as an encore by Isserlis and dedicate to his friend, Berlin Philharmonic cellist Wolfgang Boettcher, who died last week.

Post interval, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte removed any lingering shockwaves from the Shostakovich, its wafting melodies and summer-scented harmonies, plus a sumptuous Ravel orchestration to die for, paving the way for the genius of Mozart.

This may have been 56-year-old Wigglesworth’s first time conducting the G minor symphony, but the clarity and cogency of his interpretation suggest the time was ripe. There was a meaty energy to this performance, essential in addressing the robust counterpoint of the finale, but never at the expense of capturing textural detail. It wasn’t the tightest playing of the evening, the occasional hint of rushed freneticism rocking an otherwise steady ship. But the overall encapsulation of Mozart’s heavier moods, especially that deliciously emotive chain of suspensions at the heart of the Andante, was enough to dispel any minor quibbles.
Ken Walton

Listen to this concert on BBC Sounds

Maxwell Quartet : Haydn / Scots Trad.

Linn 

Listen to just the first two chords on this new Linn release by the Maxwell Quartet and you might be forgiven for thinking a good old Scottish ceilidh was about to spring into action. But these “gathering notes” are not the typical call-to-attention we associate with a traditional reel or jig, they are heralding the first of Haydn’s Op 74 string quartets, the spinal column of this cheerful new album featuring all three of the 1793 set.

How fortuitous is that primitive cadential opening to No 1, when the other side to this Classical offering is an interspersion of Scots folk music? The Maxwell’s have made a thing of mixing in their own arrangements of the latter in their live concerts. This Caledonian sprinkling is just as refreshing and invigorating in the recorded context.

But let’s start with the triptych of Haydn quartets, the Op 74 set, that fully complements the three Op 71s featured on the Maxwell’s Linn debut disc a couple of years ago, which also contains Scots fiddle tune arrangements. Both Haydn sets resulted from his first highly-successful London trip of 1791, where his experience of dedicated chamber music concerts (as opposed to the more restrained drawing room practices of his native Austria) elicited a spring-like creative response from the sexagenarian composer.

The Maxwells capture that buoyancy in all three works. The first C major quartet’s unquenchable exuberance, delivered with an enlivening grainy tonal edge, is tempered by moments of deep thinking, even probing darkness, such as the psychologically offsetting key shift that establishes the opening Allegro’s more plangent development. 

The second F major quartet has its own mysteries to fathom, its subtler nuances to shape, not so much in the two straightforward central movements as in the outermost ones, the boisterous finale in particular applying Mozartian trickery through mischievous structural and harmonic surprises, as if Haydn was honouring his recently deceased compatriot. The opening bars of the final G minor “Rider” quartet, the best known of the set, conjures up an enigmatic spirit more akin to – or rather preemptive of – Beethoven, which the Maxwells latch onto craftily, setting a high bar for a truly exhilarating performance.

Against all that are the Scots numbers, beautiful and wholesome arrangements by the ensemble itself, from the gracious father-son “classicism” of Niel and Nathaniel Gow (the latter’s melting air, Coilsfield House, raptly arranged), to the gorgeously lilting Fear a’ Bhàta, a frisky Shetland jig Da Full Rigged Ship and haunting swagger of The Burning of the Piper’s Hut, anonymous and thought to date back to the Highland Clearances. 

The magic of this album is the way these two musical traditions knit so effectively together. Haydn never visited Scotland (although he did arrange Burns’ songs for the 18th century Edinburgh publisher George Thomson) but if he had his music would have had Enlightenment Scotland dancing in the streets.
Ken Walton