Ryan Wigglesworth, principal guest conductor of the Hallé, gave a programme for this week’s ‘Opus One’ concert that would have seemed outrageously heavyweight for that audience a few years ago. But it wasn’t, and the reception for Mahler’s fourth symphony showed just how much the traditionally ‘popular’ Opus One repertoire has come closer to that of the reputedly ‘heavy’ Thursday series.
He began with Mozart, and a concert aria to boot, which certainly won friends and influenced people. Joanne Lunn, the soprano who stepped in to replace Elizabeth Watts, was a charming performer of Ch’io mi scordi di te? – a classical stylist whose voice quality betrays hidden depths and holds manifest richness. In partnership with Ryan Wigglesworth (who directed and played the piano part Mozart originally wrote for himself), the piece was poised and elegantly phrased, with a controlled burst of passion for ‘Stelle barbare …’ and a degree of agitation perceptible in the final stanza (and some fiercer wind playing in its reprise).
More Mozart followed, keeping the chamber orchestra sized team of strings for his Symphony no. 34 (K338). It’s intellectual weight is in the first movement, which was taken at a sober pace for vivace, allowing for crisply articulated lines, some moments of foreboding and a grand gesture to end with. Perhaps Ryan Wigglesworth was seeking impact and profundity in the slow movement, too, among its graceful melodic shapes and occasional harmonic surprises, but I’m not sure there was much there to be found. The finale – an overture in all but name, with an ear-worm of a main theme – produced even and efficiently busy string playing from the Hallé, led by Paul Barritt.
Then it was time for Mahler. Symphony no. 4 is considered one of his most ‘approachable’, on account of its gentle melodies and cheerful themes associated with the Des Knaben Wunderhorn song that concludes the work, and in this reading it began all grace and gradual transition, with skillfully balanced textures and contrasts of woodwind tone the most telling aspect of the playing.
But of course there is something more macabre to come, and it made itself more apparent in the playfulness of the second movement, the symphony’s scherzo. Ryan Wigglesworth followed all the score’s directions to the letter, with never any additional stroke of drama. There was warmth from the horns in chorus and silvery beauty from the strings in the long slow movement, with peace and goodwill its dominant aspect, even in the ‘surprise’ gesture at its close, which was neat if not exactly startling.
Joanne Lunn returned to sing the solo of ‘Das himmlische Leben’ in the final movement, with beautiful pianissimo and a lovely portamento for St Ursula. The movement’s last defiance was an emphatic blast at the repetition of the opening theme of the whole work – a nice touch.
Ryan Wigglesworth and Joann Lunn