Photo of François-Frédéric Guy, BBC/Mark Allan

Friday, May 13, 2022

Barbican Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

This concert from Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBCSO was a bit of a mixed bag, ranging from worthy-but-dull to stupendous. And it began very beguilingly with Wigglesworth peering beneath the surface of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales to shine a soft light on the sweetness and swagger of this very French suite of eight waltzes. In fifteen minutes they summed up the elusive nature of one of romantic music’s greatest gifts, in a near-synaesthetic union of colour, eroticism and self-absorption, with the players living the dream with eerie accuracy, guided by Wigglesworth’s clear-eared appraisal of music in this world but not quite of it.

It was a lovely, subtle performance that flowed into another oblique stylistic retrospective from another French composer, Tristan Murail (born 1947). Messiaen fans will know Murail from his ondes Martenot contributions in the Turangalîla-symphonie, and both composers share a similar preoccupation with the nature of sound. But back in the 1970s, Murail took his obsession with the physics of sound much further in spectralism, a way of composing developed from incredibly complex computer analysis of overtones that flew in the face of the simplifications of the minimalist school and the tyrannies of serialism.

It’s fair to say of any composer that a blob of ink on a musical stave is at best a visual approximation of a sonic intention, while Murail has been quoted as saying “music is not made with notes but with sounds”. Yet the BBCSO, Wigglesworth and François-Frédéric Guy still had blizzards of notes in front of them on paper or on iPad for L’œil du cyclone (The eye of the storm) – fantaisie-impromptu for piano and orchestra, effectively his second piano concerto. Murail’s full title suggests romantic affinities with such a work, from a time when pianist warhorses of various pedigrees bestrode the musical world. At about thirty minutes, there was time to register elements of traditional concerto form, with suggestions of a slow movement and a scherzo, a full-blown cadenza, and a lively Finale. There was much in the way of slow chordal slides from the strings, a bit too much elemental rustling on a thunder sheet, ditto the Messiaen-like harmonic glitter on pitched percussion, some Brahmsian instrumental solos, and a mainly accompanying role for orchestra. Without a strong sense of direction, it was like visiting an idiom without quite experiencing it, and it wasn’t clear whether L’œil du cyclone is a homage or a veiled implication. Guy was completely on top of the piano part – he gave the premiere in Paris in February – and Wigglesworth and the orchestra sounded completely at home in the Murail groove.

Following the interval César Franck’s Rédemption – Symphonie (1872 version), from his 1873 oratorio Rédemption, except that this morceau is Franck’s original, and not the one played at the premiere of the complete work. Franck wrote most of his best work toward the end of his life (he died in 1890). You can hear the organist-composer at work in the conventional orchestration, and there is a guileless intensity to the music that doesn’t exactly stimulate further investigation. The most memorable part is the end, a solemn march underpinned by timpani and a quietly insistent bass pedal.

It could not have been in sharper contrast to the eruption that gets Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No.4 underway. Wigglesworth has form in this work, and the BBCSO responded to him in playing of remarkable ferocity. It is an extraordinary piece, written in 1935 (given its premiere by this orchestra and Boult) and alarmingly prescient of bad times ahead. Wigglesworth proved how there is no escape from the opening motto theme, a tag that runs through the piece and which defies development in favour of ever-tightening tension. There were passages in the violent first movement that could have been written by Shostakovich before the music gets lost in a bleak reassessment of the English Sublime, over which the second movement picked its way in a cautious procession. Then the close, in which the fugues, instead of imposing order and peroration, just gushed petrol onto the flames. Wigglesworth had the measure of the Fourth’s frayed psychology, its angularity, its rare moments of intimacy, and its unremitting, baleful fluency; and, as he had done in the Ravel, his skill in matters of balance and expressive reach showed-off Vaughan Williams’s orchestral energy and originality at its most incisive: a stupendous performance of a great work.

Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on July 8 at 7.30 p.m.