Friday, 5 May 2017

Review of the Hallé under Ryan Wigglesworth

The Hallé blended tradition with innovation in Thursday’s concert, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth and in the event also dedicated to the memory of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, a former principal conductor who himself championed both.

The account of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, from 1695, was not ‘authentic’ performance. How could it be, with modern brass instruments (a touch of authentic drumming, though, for the Funeral March), the Hallé Choir in strength to sing the Sentences, and a large concert hall to fill with the resulting sound?

Wigglesworth grasped the bull by the horns and went for big effects and drama in presentation. Ceremonial music usually sounds good in the reverberant Bridgewater Hall, and this was theatrically presented, with brass and drums on high above the platform, level with the choir and at their side, the obsequies echoing around the building.

The singing had smooth, clear lines, secure intonation in the chromatic harmonies of ‘In the midst of life we are in death’, and a thrilling climax that probably exceeded anything Purcell conceived or ever heard. ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts’ also brought a dynamic use of the power of the full chorus.

Ryan Wigglesworth conducted the orchestra in a recent piece of his own – Locke’s Theatre, written for the Aldeburgh Festival of 2013. It’s made up of fairly ‘straight’ orchestrations of Matthew Locke’s 1674 music for The Tempest, but each of the three sections is followed by Wigglesworth’s own excursus on or deconstruction of the original. It requires a large orchestra, including triple woodwind (except for the higher double reeds), three trumpets, six percussionists and two harps.

In a way, the same dramatized, expansionary, grandiosing approach we had heard with Purcell’s bare notes was reflected in the writing here, especially in the opening ‘First Music’. The double of the ‘Rustic Music’ added mysteriously static passages with dance rhythm ideas borrowed from the original, and the Locke music itself of the ‘Curtain Music’ (which depicts a storm) was offered as a massive crescendo from viol-like string quartet, through the massed string orchestra, to a final eruption – and then a sequence of alternating calm and fury which left one wondering which really had the final word.

Like Berg’s violin concerto, this piece leaves the listener with just enough anchors in the known universe to take on board the mind-blowing expansion of it that’s being explored.

Finally Ryan Wigglesworth conducted Bruckner’s Symphony no. 9 – the one he left unfinished and which is usually heard as just the three completed movements.

Bruckner is a Hallé staple now (thanks in no small measure to Skrowaczewski’s work), and this account had many splendours in the long run, despite an opening in which wind and brass tones were hardly on the subtle side.

But the strings (led by Daniel Bell) brought their best ‘dolce’ tone to the first movement exposition, and the brass grew in precision and impressiveness as the work went on. Wigglesworth hammered home the disturbingly ferocious jollity of the scherzo along with its fleeting moments of soul’s contentment; and the finale – Adagio or else ‘very slow’ – built to a powerful conclusion, despite one slight miscalculation (as I heard it) of the tempo. The last pages were beautifully warm.

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