The Hallé at the Bridgewater Hall, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth; 9 November 2017.

Tonight’s concert, with the all-purpose Ryan Wigglesworth at the helm as the Hallé’s Principal Guest Conductor, offers two works by Mozart, namely the Aria for Soprano, Piano and Orchestra ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te?…Non temer, amato bene’ (K. 505) and Symphony No 34 in C major (K. 338). These are to be followed by Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G major.

‘Chio mi scordi di te…’ sees Wigglesworth at the piano both playing and conducting as he plays. This is a wonderful and scary feat to watch as he dexterously and impecccably keeps up the piano part with his left hand and with his right directs each section of the orchestra. Joanne Lunn performs next to him front of stage in a glitzy aquamarine gown. The dynamic and inter-play between the two is sharp and enterprising. They play off each other’s phrasing and Lunn’s performance itself is emotive and insistent. Her intonation and phrasing are very fine and this is matched with good gestural command both through her face and body and a pressing stage-presence that visually represents the aria’s words well matching confidentiality with longing. Bolstering this is the work put in by the reduced forces of the Hallé which is considered and tasteful.

Latterly this famous aria has been given an added dimension and intrigue through historical speculation that the already married Mozart and Nancy Storace, the much younger soprano who the composer dedicated the piece to and originally performed it with, might have been intimately involved. Indeed it is quite an intimate piece in itself stemming both from the words and the arrangement. Lunn finds a way to pitch (pun not intentional) her interpretation of the aria in a place that feels like individual address in some moments and a wider, more general one to the whole auditorium at others.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 34, dating to 1780, was written towards the end of the composer’s stay in Salzburg where he had grown increasingly dissatisfied with a lack of opportunity and success so embarked on a period of roaming around Europe (Augsburg, Mannheim, Paris and Munich) in search of these elsewhere. As with the previous aria there is a link to Mozart’s personal life and another soprano, Aloysia Weber, with whom he had fallen in love during the course of the singing lessons he had been giving to her. Of course Mozart would go on to marry Aloysia’s sister Constanze instead. This is where any thematic similarity between the two works ends since the Symphony is a boisterous, powerful and implacable fusion of snappy strings, potent brass fanfares, mellifluous woodwind and truculent percussion.

The interpretation offered by Wigglesworth and the Hallé is both measured and brusque. There is a touch of rebelliousness and frustration in their approach that very much matches the tone that Mozart was perhaps aiming for in the score since he was now entering his musical maturity and ready to assert his compositional and artistic prowess across the continent. There is a luscious brightness in the way that the orchestra defines the principal thematic material. Mozart tried some new things in this work, declining to offer a genuine tune at the start of the first movement and providing instead a series of marching arpeggio figures. There is also no repeat of the exposition. This experiment carries through into the remaining movements (only three in total in this Symphony). In other places the work is more conventionally Mozartian. But the sense of forward propulsion from the orchestra and the emphasis on quick transitions to new melodic, harmonic and textural ideas is palpable. This serves as a reminder that Mozart was a serious artist but that these loftier ambitions often had to be balanced with the expectations of artistic patrons and contemporary audiences.

The concert closes with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. The opening of the work with its distinctive and knowing pairing of sleigh bells with flutes (this reoccurs strategically throughout) gives way to strings which are very Mozartian and very classical. The rest of the orchestra (barring trombones and tuba which are omitted from the score) enters and the music continues to be gracefully neat, shapely and at ease with itself. Little pips from the brass and slurred figures in woodwind compliment sweeping violin passages. Mahler being Mahler this kind of simplicity cannot last and inevitably the movement becomes more complex and intellectual exploring rather disjointed and abstracted ideas and themes. In this sense it makes a provocative and intriguing program-mate for the prior Mozart symphony.

The undoubted highlight of this symphony and of this performance is the gorgeous and transcendent third movement, a beautiful, contemplative adagio that grows out of subtle, rich string sonorities, notably the cellos and an understated rhythmically ostinato phrase in the double basses which is played pizzicato. The playing is suitably heavenly and has a liquidity and a sense of yearning as the orchestra beautifully enunciates the ardent sostenuto character of the movement, harp punctuations and some very fine horn and oboe playing providing additional hues and richness.

After the surprisingly grandiose and majestic conclusion to the slow movement with emphatic timpani and the orchestra playing an elevated fortissimo tutti that slowly dies away back into tranquility it is time for Lunn to join them in the finale having sat patiently at the front for the third’s entirety.

This begins without great pause. Sleigh bells notably return here between each stanza of the song or poem used, pointing the listener to the very beginning of the symphony and the movement melodically and rhythmically calls back to that. The song, ‘Das himmlische Leben’ (‘The Heavenly Life’), from Mahler’s Wunderhorn series (themselves taken from the German text Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of poems and folk songs) presents a different challenge to the soprano than Mozart’s aria. The subject matter is a child’s vision of heaven. This meshes naivety or innocence with the reality that sometimes the paradisiacal necessarily comes with a side-order of slaughter as it details the sacrifice and preparation of animals by different Saints…Martha, Luke, John: ‘We enjoy heavenly pleasures / and therefore avoid earthly ones. / No worldly tumult / is to be heard in heaven. […] John lets the lambkin out, and Herod the butcher lies in wait for it.’ Lunn does an excellent job of getting across the different aspects of the song with luminous, resounding intonation and the orchestra knows when to force a point or surrender.

This concert is due to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday November 24th so if you missed out on the night there is an opportunity to hear this fantastic performance by the Hallé under the baton of Wigglesworth again.

Simon Haworth

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