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Wigglesworth Conducts Bruckner

Mark Wigglesworth, guest conductor of VSO 

Works by Schubert and Bruckner - Orpheum, December 8, 2012 

 Guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth

Guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth

     Up-and-coming 48-year old British conductor Mark Wigglesworth has given many important concerts in Europe, and it is wonderful that he had time to visit Vancouver and conduct the VSO.  He has been Associate Conductor of the BBC Symphony, Music Director of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, as well as working with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw and London Symphony Orchestras.  In addition to recordings of Mahler and Wagner, he has now just completed a well-received Shostakovich symphony cycle on the distinguished BIS label.  In this concert, he moved to somewhat different repertoire: Schubert and Bruckner.

From the opening of Schubert’s ever-popular ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, we saw the conductor’s strong orchestral command and his care in balancing orchestral parts to produce a warm, full and integrated sound.  In general, this was a fine performance, building dramatically over its two movements but let down slightly by some insecure playing from the French horns and a too coaxed rhythmic flow at the beginning of the second movement.  This work can be a very sad in feeling and the outbursts from the orchestra can really be quite menacing.  The performance did not quite achieve that but, observing how some of the string and wind interchanges were presented, it did hint at an unusual type of mystery and foreboding.  This was the feeling of Dvorak’s final tone-poems, with all the macabre undercurrents they imply.  Interesting, though whether late 19th C. allusions should appear in a work written 70 years earlier is not clear.

     It is always one of the remarkable stories of music history of how a very modest, religiously-devout Austrian organist named Anton Bruckner could write nine symphonies of such radiant beauty and transcendent power.  Probably because of his background, his use of a very large orchestra, and his professed admiration for Richard Wagner, he has frequently been seen to share a musical kinship with Wagner and Gustav Mahler.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Bruckner’s constructions have no obvious roots in theater or mythology and they have none of the histrionics of joy, pain and torture that feature so readily in Mahler (or his later follower, Shostakovich). Bruckner’s symphonies look back to the foundations of Bach, Beethoven, and the lyrical style of Schubert, in presenting pure, absolute music.  Starting from a quiet and humble awareness, they build with dignity and grandeur to their conclusion.  They have the granite-like integrity of a Bach organ fugue.  The journey that we are taken on is indeed moving and often inexorable, but more spiritual and otherworldly than personal.

     The obvious point is that being able to perform Wagner, Mahler or Shostakovich well is no guarantee of success in conducting Bruckner.  In fact, the celebrated Bruckner ‘specialists’, Eugen Jochum and Gunter Wand, hardly ever performed Mahler or Shostakovich at all. The problem of Mark Wigglesworth’s rendering of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 (1883) is that he tried to conduct Bruckner with the dramatic force of Mahler or Shostakovich.  This was going to be passionate, intense, high-action Bruckner — and it simply didn’t work!

     The opening of the symphony is all about sustaining quiet, carefully-gradated string textures, but not here.  Before we knew it, the cello theme was projected with a weight that suggested the saga of Wagner’s Tristan, and the intensity was ratcheted up from there; the conductor continually coaxing a more and more passionate response from the strings.  All the contemplation and space in the work seemingly vanished, as did the significance of the probing woodwind lines.  The glossy strings soared as in a Hollywood epic film, the brass climaxes achieving an almost ‘Star Wars’ nobility.  The same passion was there in the second movement too, which started twice as loudly as I have ever heard it.  This is supposed to be a restrained and reverential movement that only gradually reaches a climax.  Things improved somewhat in the last two movements but still the conductor’s attempts to heighten drama remained distracting.  Why was it necessary to add an additional timpani crescendo at all the third movement’s climaxes?  Why does one want to turn the quiet brass interlude at the end of the work into an extended underworld dirge?  This is a symphony of simple beauty and majesty: it does not require additional advocacy.

     Mark Wigglesworth is a fine young conductor who can get a strong and disciplined response from a large orchestra, but he simply has to do some homework on his Bruckner.

© Geoffrey Newman 2012