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
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.