It was a bit of a risk for the BBC SSO to programme a Wagner opera, albeit a shortened form of Götterdämmerung remodelled as a “symphonic journey” by the orchestra’s multi-talented chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, given that anything so heavyweight is guaranteed to test the limits of the City Halls acoustics. Then again, this is a venue that, in the 1980s and prior to modernisation, accommodated Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, so maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea.
Wigglesworth’s original motive for creating his 50-minute version was, he claims, to provide a shortened concert alternative to the whole without resorting to what has often been termed “bleeding chunks”. And to a great extent he succeeds, majoring on the prologue and Act 3 music with its critical and conclusive Immolation music, while padding the musical progression out with relevant infill from elsewhere in the massive score.
So yes, it was Wagnerian heaven, eventually. Wigglesworth has a habit of over-controlling things, which was more evident earlier in the performance, in a safety-first sort of way, than in the later stages, especially once the resplendent soprano Katherine Broderick let rip with those final epic moments as Brünnhilde. Her voice powered through the orchestra, and the heat of the opera suddenly became more ecstatically real.
It was here, too, that Wigglesworth awoke to the drama, the SSO responding in turn with gushing waves of true Wagnerian exhilaration and passion. Then, the cathartic transformation of the closing bars, and a quiet intensity that hung magically in the air. Even so, I was left unconvinced that this is the final say in how concert adaptations of Wagner can best work.
In a shorter first half, Wigglesworth offered another of his pet enthusiasms, music by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, indeed the UK premiere of his Vers le silence (Towards the Silence), written during lockdown.
It opened with a shattered glass effect, a shrill tutti that busied itself intently until exhaustion quashed its searing euphoria, revealing a more restful, ethereal landscape. This appeared to be the game plan for the first three movements, each subtly altered in mood, but frustratingly repetitive in concept, only to be extinguished by an uneventful, slow-moving finale. Abrahamsen has a gift for texture, not so much for harmonic warmth. And strangely enough, it was the piccolo-heavy tuttis in this work that challenged the ears rather more than the Wagner did.
This programme is repeated at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Sun 20 Nov
Anyone unfamiliar with Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta will still have suspected that something big and exhilarating was on the cards for this well-attended afternoon concert – Bohemian Rhapsodies – by the BBC SSO under its chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth. The clue was in the expectant line of music strands splayed across the rear balcony, a sure sign that an additional grandstanding phalanx of brass would be appearing anytime soon.
But way before that, Wigglesworth opened with something rarer and altogether more populist by Janacek: his Lachian Dances, which arise out of the same rustic nationalist genre as fellow Bohemian Antonin Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. They are tuneful, picturesque, with exuberant rhythmic surprises that thrill, moodily countered by curious modal colourings that frequently cool the ardour.
That didn’t prevent the SSO homing in on the music’s overarching optimism, plentiful in the swarthy, celebratory Pozehnany and swaggering Celadensky (Country Bumpkin’s Dance). Wigglesworth generally let them speak for themselves, though a further reining in of the wind and brass would have warranted a better-balanced presence by the strings.
Then came the highlight of the programme, a diversion into the whimsical world of Hungarian composer Erno Dohnanyi and his tongue-in-cheek concerto treatment of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, more quaintly known as his Variations on a Nursery Song. With its sidestepping jibes at all the greats – Liszt, Richard Strauss, Brahms, Bruckner and others – the satirical impact was made all the more effective by the clean, unfussy, matter-of-fact virtuosity of pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, pitted against Dohnanyi’s sparkling orchestration.
The comic set-up – a growling opening right out of the Wagner-Liszt camp – made its mark, power-driven by Wigglesworth only to be slapped down by the smirky fausse naïveté of Kanneh-Mason’s nursery theme entry. The partnership remained frivolously alert throughout.
The second half opened with four of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, their natural ebullience captured equally in spirit and lively content.
Finally, the massed balcony brass lined up for Janacek’s Sinfonietta, a daring challenge for the City Halls’ limited acoustics, but one well met by the molten, tumultuous quality of the brass ensemble and the overall orchestral spectacle this work exudes. Momentary untidiness in attack and balance issues aside, the overall impression was one of awesome spectacle. For that alone, it was worth waiting for.
Ryan Wigglesworth’s opening programme as new chief conductor of the BBC SSO told us much about what to expect from him as he nurtures his relationship with his new orchestra. It was anything but run-of-the-mill, offsetting the sparkling French textures of Ravel and Messiaen with brand new music by the interesting young Yorkshire-born composer Jonathan Woolgar. The musical journey, which also featured the pitch-perfect BBC Singers, was endlessly adventurous and repeatedly exhilarating. Wigglesworth has set his own bar unquestionably high.
As a composer himself, he has as eye – and an ear – for latent talent. In Woolgar’s new BBC commission, Symphonic Message in memory of L.R. (referring to the drama teacher Lynda Ross whom, the composer writes, inspired so many at his former school), Wigglesworth focused on the frenetic impatience of Woolgar’s musical characterisation, a fast-moving exchange of sharp-textured contradictions that paradoxically spelt completeness.
Wigglesworth could have pressed a little more to punch out the detail, even where Woolgar’s motivic invention itself lacked a natural spark, but this was a performance that lived by its adrenalin and sense of constant surprise. As such, it served well as a springboard to the French feast that lay ahead.
On their own, Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi – a musical gift to his wife Claire Delbos, pet name “Mi”, rather in the manner of Wagner’s Siegried Idyll – are a 1937 set of orchestral songs fulfilling enough in themselves. But with the BBC Singers to hand, why not offer a scene-setter in the form of the contemporaneous Messiaen a cappella motet, O sacrum convivium?
It was a magical moment, Wigglesworth’s contained gestures eliciting a mystical perfection from the 36-strong chorus, in both the thrilling unanimity and sustained stillness and slowness of the performance.
Without a break, Canadian soprano Jane Archibald (replacing Wigglesworth’s indisposed wife, Sarah Bevan, as soloist) unleashed a glowing interpretation of the nine Poèmes pour Mi, probing every expressive possibility, from internalised intensity to outward rapture. It wasn’t always possible to hear every word she sang above the glittering orchestration, but as a whole, and with the SSO extolling the full virtues of Messiaen’s orchestral sweetness and translucence, this was an utterly sublime and moving performance.
Much of that was down to Wigglesworth’s highly prescriptive conducting. He appears to be something of a perfectionist, each gesture carefully pre-considered and ultra-clear in its intentions.
That was certainly a prime factor in ensuring that the concluding work in this concert, Ravel’s full 1912 score for the ballet Daphnis and Chloe, shone to its fullest and finest potential. Infinite colours abounded in a performance that variously sparkled and sighed, revelled and acquiesced. Acute textural detail informed mostly every moment, the wordless chorus spreading a comforting glow, like a red evening sky, over the shifting orchestral iridescence. It triggered off instant cheers and applause, and bodes well for Wigglesworth’s future relationship with his new orchestra.
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
Ryan Wigglesworth, the BBC SSO’s newly appointed chief conductor, will open the orchestra’s 2022-23 Season with a programme on 22 September dominated by Ravel’s complete ballet score Daphnis et Chloé. The following evening Wigglesworth will appear as pianist with a trio of BBC principals in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, part of a wider Messiaen theme next season to mark 30 year’s since the radical French composer’s death.
Wigglesworth, who succeeds Thomas Dausgaard in the SSO conductor hot seat, will spearhead a further six programmes in the season, including a performance of Messiaen’s The Sermon to the Birds from his opera St Francis of Assisi, a Bach/Stravinsky double-header in which Wigglesworth will also feature as piano soloist in Bach’s E major Keyboard Concerto, and a closing concert in May 2023 featuring the world premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Cello Concerto (soloist Laura van der Heijden) and Elgar’s Symphony No 2.
“Ryan is a compelling musician – whether as conductor, composer or pianist – and his warmth towards our players will be evident in all the varied programmes he’s bringing to audiences across Scotland,” said SSO director Dominic Parker, presiding over the launch of the orchestra’s first full season of performances since the pandemic hit two years ago.
The orchestra’s other associated conductors are also back in force. Conductor emeritus Sir Donald Runnicles tackles Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh in February. Alpesh Chauhan, associate conductor, takes on two programmes, one with Rimsky Korsakov’s richly-coloured Scheherazade, another with Shostakovich’s hard-hitting Fifth Symphony that also goes to the Sage in Newcastle.
Principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov’s particular penchant for modern repertoire is reflected in two season programmes that range in repertoire from Ligeti and Xenakis to the rarefied sounds, and UK premieres, of Norwegian composer Oyvind Torvund and Belgian Stefan Prins. Volkov will again co-curate the annual contemporary music festival Tectonics in May.
The newly-announced SSO appointment of Danish-born modernist Hans Abrahamsen as composer-in-association is marked by the world premiere of his Vers le silence in November, a month before he celebrates his 60th birthday. Wigglesworth, who conducts that concert, will also direct his own distillation of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, “A Symphonic Journey”.
Other world premieres include a new BBC commission from genre-bending South African cellist/composer Abel Selaocoe and the former BBC Young Composer winner Jonathan Woolgar.
Among the many guest conductors returning to the SSO are Joanna Carneiro, Hannu Lintu, Matthias Pintscher and Michael Sanderling. Tabita Berglund, in Scotland this month to conduct the RSNO, is joined by pianist Stephen Hough for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Long-time favourite Martyn Brabbins contributes to the Vaughan Williams 150th anniversary celebrations with a performance, alongside Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, of his Symphony No 5. He also directs a screening of Charles Frend’s 1948 adventure film Scott of the Antarctic, complete with live performance of Vaughan Williams’ haunting soundtrack.
In a late season afternoon concert (April) Brabbins curates “The Sound of Scotland” which features the world premieres of his own Aduos and James MacMillan’s Canon for Two Violas alongside music by Judith Weir, Iain Hamilton and William Wallace’s Creation Symphony.
The SSO are alluding to this as their A-Z season, with the wildest possible range of repertoire, from Thomas Ades to Alexander Zemlinsky, by way of Bartok, Chopin, Debussy, Elgar and much more. Guest artists include pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason (Dohnanyi’s Variations on a Nursery Song), violinist Elina Vähälä (Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 2) and the BBC Singers (in the opening Ravel concert and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms).
Regular favourites include the seasonal Christmas Classics and Christmas at the Movies with singer/presenter Jamie MacDougall. Most concerts will be recorded for BBC Radio 3, valuable thereafter on BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer. The announcement of further concerts is due in the coming weeks.
Whether it was always planned as such is still an open question, but the announcement of the appointment of composer/conductor Ryan Wigglesworth to succeed Thomas Dausgaard at the artistic helm of the BBC Scottish happily coincided with the Beeb’s celebrations of its centenary with concerts by all its performing groups on Radio 3, combining the music of the 1920s with that of the 2020s.
As Wigglesworth told VoxCarnyx last week, that was an interesting brief, and his programme came up with one of the weekend’s best answers to it, with a composition of his own representing our own time and three contrasting but complementary works from the 20th century.
His Five Waltzes for viola and orchestra have had an organic gestation since three of them began as piano pieces written on the occasion of the birth of his son, Raphael two years ago. After becoming a five-movement duet with violist Lawrence Power, the toddler was orchestrated for this occasion for a small ensemble with no upper strings replacing the piano. The soloist was the SSO’s principal viola Scott Dickinson, and the framing outer movements in particular seemed to owe something to the Modernism audible elsewhere in the evening.
The original trio are like snapshots or audio postcards and their piano origins were often still clear in the scoring, but the instrumentation always left plenty of space for the virtuosic solo line.
The concert’s other soloist was Katherine Broderick, whose powerful soprano was perfect for Berg’s Three Fragments from Wozzeck and Richard Strauss’s Hymn to Love, the evening’s nod towards Valentine’s Day. A Wagnerian who boasts a fine catalogue of 20th century song recordings, she bridged the gap between high Romanticism and Modernism with deceptive ease. Delightfully animated in the Strauss, she soared over the full orchestration in both.
If the Berg inevitably made one long for the full score, that was partly because of Wigglesworth’s attention to the details in what we heard. Especially in the compelling string playing in the final extract, here was evidence that this partnership between conductor and orchestra could be a highly rewarding one.
The least familiar piece of the evening was the opening work, Kurt Weill’s Quodlibet, which proved a real gem. That catch-all, almost dismissive, title hides a dramatic four-movement suite derived from a ballet score, Zaubernacht, that Weill composed as a student. With loads of opportunity for solo cameos across the orchestra, theatrical use of percussion and a very busy timpani part, the music is both clearly of its time (the early 1920s) and full of pre-echoes of Weill’s later work for the stage, particularly The Threepenny Opera.
Ryan Wigglesworth, newly-appointed Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, talks to Keith Bruce about his multi-disciplinary life and plans for the future.
The man who will take over from Thomas Dausgaard as Chief Conductor of the BBC SSO in September is better acquainted with the orchestra than some will immediately recognise.
“I’ve been working on and off with the orchestra for quite a number of years,” he says. “It is probably ten years since my first concert, which was a Shakespeare-inspired programme with Korngold and Berlioz. Then we did a residency at Aldeburgh with a couple of concerts covering a vast amount of music, I remember.
“And during lockdown we had the chance to work together a few times in the studio doing Mozart and Mendelssohn, and culminating in what was the first concert back in front of a small audience in the Royal Concert Hall when we performed Elgar 1. It was so wonderful to play repertoire on that scale again, even although everyone was distanced.”
It is however the wide range of Wigglesworth’s practice as a musician that makes his appointment more unusual. He has spoken before of his “core business” being as a composer, and he has been a prolific one in recent years, with an acclaimed opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale for ENO, orchestral pieces for the Royal Concertgebouw, Cleveland and BBC Symphony, and songs for some of the UK’s best-loved voices. He is also a virtuoso pianist and accompanist, while his conducting work has included a three-year stint as Principal Guest of the Halle.
Composer/conductors can often be found in Associate orchestral posts, with Matthias Pintscher a notable recent example at the SSO, but rarely occupy the Chief seat.
“I suppose I am a throwback,” he says. “I don’t think this was an issue before the 20th century, when these jobs became, for whatever reason, a bit more specialised.
“Before that you were just a musician, and I suppose that’s how I see it. I can’t separate the different strands really. I’m learning so much about conducting when I compose and vice-versa. If I am learning a new work, I can’t but take it apart with the eyes of a composer – I want to know how it is built.
“It is just the way the world has gone: ever-increasing specialisation has been the trend in pretty much every walk of life.”
And while new music will certainly be part of his plans for the BBC Scottish, Wigglesworth’s musical hinterland goes back to Early Music.
“I am from a non-musical family – my dad was a butcher – but somehow I became a chorister in Sheffield and that was the start of it all. Singing has remained at the core of what I do; I love working in opera and I love working with singers. Renaissance polyphony goes so deep, and it is something I think about a lot. Very quickly, I gravitated towards the organ and I was an organ scholar at university and as a result of that was very involved with period instrument groups, playing continuo.
“I went to the Guildhall after university but then went back to university to do some post-grad. In that period I was performing lots of Bach and Handel and I was very grateful to have had the experience of working with period instruments, even if it something I regretfully don’t get to do much these days. Having had that experience, it naturally informs my approach to music of the classical era that I do get to do with symphony orchestras.
“It is particularly exciting to me that the SSO has such a strong track record in that repertoire having had a relationship with the likes of Andrew Manze. It is an almost uniquely versatile orchestra with the experience of performing so much large scale Wagner and Mahler with Donald Runnicles, and developing a sound in that late Romantic repertoire, as well as their brilliance in performing music that was written yesterday.
“It is a world-class orchestra but an orchestra that is so at home in very different repertoire.”
“Having started with Baroque and been a composer involved with new music, I have come towards the centre. I strongly believe that for the health of an orchestra we must be regularly playing the music of Wagner, Bruckner, Strauss. It is so good to work on sound in that repertoire. That’s when the symphony orchestra became fully defined and it holds epic challenges.
“Late Bruckner, as an interpreter, is still a great challenge because, unlike Mahler, the work isn’t done for you. Mahler was a supreme practical musician, but in Bruckner there are so many decisions to be made, and that’s why it is so endlessly fascinating.
“I am hopeful that we can have a first season that allows myself and the orchestra to dip our toes into lots of different things. It is a period when we will be learning a lot about each other, and I hope there is the opportunity and space to start to develop that identity across a number of areas.
“Initially, when it comes to new music I see my job as identifying those composers that will be interesting for the orchestra and our audiences, and developing long-term relationships with those composers. I want to create a family of composers who feel ‘in residence’ and have more than one project over a certain amount of time.”
There will be an early opportunity to hear Wigglesworth the soloist when he direct a Mozart concerto from the piano in an afternoon concert that also includes the world premiere of a new work by Jorg Widmann and Sibelius Symphony No 4.
“In May, when I come to play and direct some Mozart, it will be wonderful to be able to have a different kind of relationship with the orchestra. It allows us the freedom to simply listen to one another and to begin to develop the telepathy that is so important in the relationship between conductor and orchestra; the more that can be unsaid the better.”
More imminently, the Chief Conductor Designate is on the podium for the SSO’s contribution to Sunday’s celebration of the BBC’s centenary, with his own Five Waltzes sitting alongside music of the 1920s by Weill, Strauss and Berg.
“The opportunity to think about music from the early 20s when so much was going on was a wonderful challenge,” he says. “The Scenes from Wozzeck was so important to the early days of the BBC and it’s music that is dear to my heart.”
His own work in the programme began as a piano piece before become a duo with violist Lawrence Power. Composed to mark the birth of his first child, Five Waltzes has now grown once again.
“It is now orchestrated for winds and lower strings, and slightly expanded from the piano and viola version. I am very excited to do it with Scott Dickinson in such a mixed programme.”
Less than a month later, a song cycle Wigglesworth has written to mark the more recent birth of his daughter, Vignettes de Jules Renard, will have its world premiere at the Barbican, sung by baritone Roderick Williams, alongside works by Faure, Ravel and Judith Weir.
Those pieces come from a time that was fruitful in different ways for Wigglesworth.
“Our first baby was born at the start of lockdown, so I was able to see him every day for the first year of his life. And the second one was born two weeks ago, so in that sense it has been a busy time!
“It was also a time when a lot of creative artists found it extremely difficult to write, or to paint, because it was such an unreal period. Looking back at it now, from this short distance, it did come with huge benefits as well as being such a hard time for so many people.
“For us creative types there was a bit of space to think, and get back to first principles. I played the piano a lot, which is something I hadn’t been able to do – to be able to play the Bach 48 every day was cathartic! And we put on little concerts in our village in Oxfordshire when my wife and I invited musician friends like Stephen Hough and Mark Padmore.”
With his Glasgow appointment, however, Wigglesworth is already thinking in terms of his children getting to know Scotland.
“I want my family to feel at home here, and it not just be a place where I come to rehearse and do a concert.
“I’ve just finished quite a big chorus and orchestra piece which will be premiered by Ed Gardner and his Bergen orchestra in April, and the immediate focus is on the job here. There’s been a series of orchestral projects as a composer going back some years now, and I think I am going to enjoy taking a step back from that, maybe writing a bit of chamber music, but the focus is on creating a home here.
“There’s so much I am interested in learning about – like the orchestra’s work in Campbeltown and those sort of residencies where we can identify a community and bring something to really make a difference. I want to learn about all of the orchestra’s audiences, at the Music Hall in Aberdeen, the Usher Hall and Perth Concert Hall.
“I have worked in many of the halls and I adore the country, but the process is never-ending. That’s a hugely exciting prospect and it is something I’ve been longing for. That sense of belonging and a place where I can focus my energies.”
Ryan Wigglesworth conducts the BBC SSO on Sunday February 13 in Glasgow’s City Halls. The concert, with soloists Katherine Broderick (soprano) and Scott Dickinson (viola) is part of the BBC 100 celebrations and broadcast live on Radio 3.
Portrait of Ryan Wigglesworth copyright BBC and Gordon Burniston