BBC Symphony Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth with Leopold String Trio – Tippett & Wagner

Triple Concerto
Wagner, arr. Henk de Vlieger
The Ring – an orchestral adventure

Leopold String Trio [Isabelle van Keulen (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) & Kate Gould (cello)]

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Mark Wigglesworth

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 October, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

There must have been not a few among the audience who recalled Mark Wigglesworth’s brief but eventful association with the BBC Symphony during the early 1990s, which resulted in a number of enterprising programmes. His appearance with this orchestra after the best part of two decades was a timely one, and confirmed that the conductor had lost none of his interpretative insight or ability to tease-out the most subtle nuance. These attributes were deployed to advantage in a coupling that additionally launched the BBCSO’s season-long exploration of the symphonic works by Sir Michael Tippett: a mainstay of its programming under Andrew Davis but which has been rather overlooked in the interim.

The first half bought a welcome revival of Tippett’s Triple Concerto (1979). Unlike various other of the composer’s later works that were subjected to a fresh critical mauling as recently as his centenary seven years ago, the present work met with acclaim right from its premiere – when it was hailed as a return to the ‘ecstatic lyricism’ that, having been gleaned at the close of the Fourth String Quartet, was now given its head. Yet the rigorous formal procedures underpinning all Tippett’s large-scale instrumental works are no less in evidence: witness the opening movement’s ingenious conflation of fantasia and sonata procedures, or the slow movement’s heightening of emotional intensity via the telling juxtaposition of its melodic ideas rather than motivic development. In its quirky take on rondo form, the finale still feels too short-winded to fulfil its role in the overall design, for all that Tippett brings back the work’s initial themes to make a satisfying apotheosis, but it reflected considerably on this performance that the movement emerged as larger in conception than it is in duration.

One aspect of the Triple Concerto that has always divided opinion is the degree to which the musicians can successfully be integrated without obscuring each other’s persona – one reason why a string trio is usually preferable to that by three soloists. Hence, too, the success of a reading in which not only were the problems of balance almost entirely overcome, but the sense of an ensemble freely juxtaposed with the orchestra was tellingly in evidence. Isabelle van Keulen led the way with her capricious flights of fancy, while Lawrence Power ensured the viola was never subsumed within the overall texture, and Kate Gould overcame early intonation problems to give an idiomatic and sensitive account of the cello part. Wigglesworth proved a well-nigh ideal accompanist – never driving the music too hard, while making sure to characterise the brief but strategically placed interludes and confirming that the slow movement – the soloists as one over a luminous texture of tuned percussion – is among the sure highpoints in all of Tippett. This was a welcome and successful revival.

No less welcome (or successful) was the Wagner. To be sure, the “orchestral adventure” (1991) that Henk de Vlieger extracted from Der Ring des Nibelungen will not have pleased those who view each instalment of the tetralogy as an indivisible entity, yet in an era when not even overtures or preludes – let alone ‘bleeding chunks’ or ‘symphonic syntheses’ – feature regularly on concert programmes, a whole generation of concertgoers is being deprived of some of the most significant mid-nineteenth-century music and de Vlieger’s undertaking is not to be lightly dismissed. It helps that the present sequence, though hardly the ultimate in cohesion, is for the greater part judicious in its selection.

Thus the slowly enveloping ‘Prelude’ from Das Rheingold leads into a précis of that opera’s first scene, then to brief yet pertinent evocations of ‘Nibelheim’ and ‘Valhalla’ before an overly abrupt transition into the ‘(Ride of) The Valkyries’ from the third act of Die Walküre. A curtailed version of the ‘Magic Fire’ music elides artlessly into ‘Forest Murmurs’ from the second Act of Siegfried, before launching into ‘Siegfried’s Heroic Deed’ and the mesmeric orchestral transition from that opera’s third Act to which ‘Brünnhilde’s Awakening’ is a natural climax. The extracts from Götterdämmerung follow once-standard concert practice in segueing from the Prologue’s ecstatic depiction of ‘Siegfried and Brünnhilde’ to ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’, whose equivocal conclusion leads seamlessly into the rapt depiction of ‘Siegfried’s Death’ from the third Act and the still much-maligned ‘Funeral Music’ that follows. The orchestral culmination of ‘Brünnhilde’s Immolation’ then provides for an apotheosis ending this 65-minute sequence as inevitably as it does the 15-hour whole.

Even in such a reduced version, this music remains a tall order for any orchestra and the BBCSO responded with playing that conveyed both the visceral impact yet also the delicacy and finesse of Wagner’s writing in fullest measure – Martin Owen’s almost faultless ‘horn-call’ the highlight among a number of ably taken instrumental solos. For his part, Mark Wigglesworth – whose experience in the opera house is no less extensive than in the concert hall – drew a lustre and responsiveness from the players that evinced no mean rapport. Hopefully he will be back with this orchestra before long.

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