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S & H Prom Review

PROM 50: Wagner, Berg, Brahms; Christine Brewer (sop), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mark Wigglesworth (con), Royal Albert Hall, 27th August, 2003 (AR)


What made this Prom so outstanding throughout was the impeccable conducting of Mark Wigglesworth: not only was he a marvel to look at with his passionate but economic gestures (not a movement out of place) but also his structural grasp of all three composers was a source of wonder.

His conducting of Wagner’s Tannhuäuser and Vensuberg Music (1845, 1861) was exemplary: his expansive phrasing was tempered by maintaining a rock-steady tempo, gradually moulding the music from its sombre opening passages, building up the tension in the festive Venusberg music, only to die down and slowly unwind in the quiet, closing string passages, which were hushed and exquisitely sustained. His rigorous control of dynamic range was a marvel. Not only was his pacing absolute perfection, his sense of orchestral colour and balance made every detail of the orchestra shine through. There was no congestion even in the wildest percussive moments.

Judging by this performance alone, Wigglesworth has the making of a great Wagnerian and should be conducting at Bayreuth;his recent Covent Garden Die Meistersinger (2002) was universally acclaimed.

Next came Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs (1905-8, orch. 1928) sung by the American soprano, Christine Brewer. While she had astonishing breath control and impeccable phrasing, floating every note with ease, there was something lacking in interpretive insight and forward projection, with her voice coming over as rather monochromatic. One longed for more coloration, more passion. The only times she seemed to have any sense of feeling and expression were in Die Nachtigall and Im Zimmer: this was an example of flawless technique but soulless performance.

By way of compensation, the sounds that did radiate a sense of darkness, expression and colour were those of the LPO, who played with a subtle, angular sparseness, sculpted by their conductor’s rigorous phrasing. Here it was the conductor and orchestra who were most interesting and inspiring, and I was more seduced and hypnotised by them than the soloist.

Today our concert halls are saturated with performances of Brahms’ First Symphony which tend towards the rhetorical and the sensational. What made Wigglesworth’s interpretation so ‘musical’ was his rigorous control over symphonic structure, where all four movements became a unfolding unified whole. Throughout, the conductor maintained a rock-steady tempo and wide dynamic range, making this a dramatic and powerfully direct interpretation.

The opening movement can often sound like a detached interlude but here it had great urgency and fluidity coupled with a grace and delicacy which seemed to flow naturally in to the Un pocco allegretto, where Wigglesworth adopted an agile and buoyant tempo, drawing out some illuminating and impassioned playing from the entire orchestra. In the closing of the brief and brooding Adagio before the launch into the big finale the flautists Susan Thomas and Siobhan Grealy were quite outstanding, playing with poignant eloquence.

The Allegro was like a mirror image of the first movement in the way Wigglesworth had a total grip on tight structure, steady tempo and orchestral balance. Here the LPO strings had a majestic weight and the brass, in particular the horns, had a radiant glow.

Many conductors today have a tendency to slow down in the closing passages, which is not indicated in the score, for rhetorical and sensational effect but on this occasion such this was eschewed in favour of authenticity, and the conductor kept faithfully to the score, as he did throughout this performance. Timpanist Simon Carrington played with great authority, incisiveness and dynamism, totally in sympathy with the conductor’s conception – a stellar performance.

This was certainly an account of this work as close to Brahms’ intentions as we are likely to hear today. It is interesting to speculate whether Wigglesworth’s direct and classical reading was the reason he did not get the fulsome applause he truly deserved.

By some margin the best conducted and played Prom I have attended this year.

Alex Russell


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