Prom 16: In the South … La mer … Joanna MacGregor plays Hugh Wood

In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Hugh Wood
Piano Concerto, Op.32
Miroirs – Une barque sur l’océan [orchestrated by the composer]
Debussy, orch. Henry Wood
La cathédrale engloutie [Préludes: Book I]
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Joanna MacGregor (piano)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ryan Wigglesworth

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 July, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Ryan WigglesworthDelete Thierry Fischer (ill); insert Ryan Wigglesworth (available). With apologies to Robert Browning: oh to be in Italy now that the Olympics are here! Elgar was there, in Alassio, during the winter of 1903 and 1904 – hoping to escape the British climate only to find weather even more inclement. Nevertheless the clouds did clear and he started work on an ambitious and complex piece that became In the South. Written with alacrity in the January, orchestrated during February (Elgar now back home in Malvern) and first performed in March (in London, the composer conducting) – not bad for the paper, pen and printing-press era – although illustrative of the sights and sounds that eventually absorbed Elgar during his sojourn, the end result goes deeper: music for the soul, something that Daniel Barenboim had mused on (as well as the Middle East situation, with much wisdom) earlier in the day.

Ryan Wigglesworth is very much a champion of the new (and also a composer of it) – witness his expert recent conducting of Caligula for English National Opera and his unveiling of Julian Anderson’s The Discovery of Heaven. One guesses that In the South was a first for him. Maybe he was too urbane with the score – there is more bristle to it – but he was sympathetic; balances were lucid, detail was clean (if not always from the horns) and the whole was nicely timed and turned, joy and languor in abundance and with thoroughly Elgarian impulses. This is a work easy to dally with, drool over and sensationalise; Wigglesworth avoided all three, partly because he was at one-remove from it, but such distance brought its own freshness and no baggage; there was hush and exhilaration; and a dulcet viola solo from Göran Fröst.

At the other end of the evening, similar virtues and a few misfires informed La mer, music of infinite possibilities, a symphony in disguise, and a masterpiece of invention and colour; also for the soul. Clear and crisp, if a little tension-less and cool, Wigglesworth created the all-important ‘through-line’ that this music needs across its three movements (fortunately no applause intruded such design). Wigglesworth gifted us flexibility without discontinuity and, particularly in ‘Play of the Waves’, subtle intricacies, yet without fully defining the greatness of this fastidious score. One oddity: towards the end of the finale there are ad lib brass ‘fanfares’. Wigglesworth played them – rightly – but unusually had the brass in unison with the strings as well as loud enough to obliterate them.

Hugh Wood. Photograph: Johan PerssonThe orchestral miniatures were both superbly successful. Ravel’s orchestration of Une barque sur l’océan (he also scored Alborada del gracioso from his Miroirs piano cycle) is a work of art in itself. BBCNOW’s response was pristine, Wigglesworth ensuring that the music’s range – placid, mysterious and threatening – enjoyed finesse and ocean-wave climaxes. Henry Wood’s re-working of Debussy’s tenth Prélude (The Engulfed Cathedral) is extravagant, a world-away from the piano original, shrouded in gongs and bells and with a subterranean organ pedal; this sea-monster of a transcription proved gloriously garish.

Joanna MacGregor. Photograph: www.warnerclassicsandjazz.comFrom Henry Wood to Hugh Wood, now in his 80th-birthday year. Good to have revived his 30-minute Piano Concerto (1991) and by the pianist for whom it was written; Joanna MacGregor triumphed. Whether angular, aggressive, jazzy or meditative, the first two movements compel (the dashing finale doesn’t quite emulate them), the slow movement especially, breathed in on the cusp of audibility, sometimes alluding to Bartók’s ‘night music’, introducing a bluesy trombone solo, dripping in Berg’s brand of romanticism, and finally stating what has been ingeniously present all the while, the song ‘Sweet Lorraine’, perhaps most associated with Nat ‘King’ Cole. The first movement’s variety seems to reference to a British generation previous to Wood’s – such as, to various degrees, Alan Rawsthorne and Humphrey Searle, and to his contemporary, the late Alun Hoddinott; and further afield to Olivier Messiaen (a MacGregor specialism). It would be difficult to imagine a more accomplished, committed and persuasive performance than this one.

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