United Kingdom Mahler, Bruckner: Alice Coote (mezzo), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor), City Halls, Glasgow, 16.04.2015 (SRT)
Mahler: Five songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 “Romantic”
For an orchestra that is so well accustomed to playing the German greats under Donald Runnicles, it’s not surprising to find the BBC SSO so proficient in Bruckner, too. It was Mark Wigglesworth, rather than Runnicles, who was on duty tonight, but I was nevertheless very impressed with his affinity for this music. Most strikingly, he has the ability properly to build a climax rather than to magic it out of nowhere, and this score gave him plenty of opportunities to do just that. Best of all, he did so with little fuss and no bluster; just a clean, direct vision for what the music should be doing, that was never merely businesslike. Nowhere was that finer than in the long coda of the finale, which seemed to grow and grow with just the right gradations of sound before climaxing in the great E flat summation that ends the work.
I also liked Wigglesworth’s sense of scale. That gave real magnificence to the Scherzo – no mere hunting horns, these – and a huge sense of breadth to the slow movement. The orchestra matched him every step of the way. The strings sounded admirably central-European in that slow movement: rich, chocolaty and mellow, with all the flow of an orchestra that knows this tradition well. They also conjured up a marvellously clean shimmer at the start of the first movement, and the brass sounded clipped and ringing so that the climaxes never carried any hint of aural fog, culminating in a thrilling unison fanfare at the end.
Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs are smaller in scale, even those that ended up in the symphonies, but, as in the Bruckner, what impressed me in the opening of Das irdische Leben was the delicacy and accuracy of those anguished string figurations. Here was something precise and well-worked, doing full justice to Mahler’s eclectic orchestration, and underlining the desperation of the starving child’s progress towards the coffin. By contrast, there was a folksy bloom to Rheinlegendchen, with Wigglesworth unafraid to pull the tempo around for effect, and the orchestral sound for Urlicht was wonderfully soft, particularly that gorgeous, whispered opening for strings and then the trumpets. It was also nice to relish it without the shattering climax that follows it in the symphony!
Alice Coote approached these songs as a singing actress, slightly irritatingly so as she beamed into the audience at the end of Rheinlegendchen, but she was very sympathetic as the ghostly lover in Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen. In the last song, though, the finale of the Fourth Symphony, she seemed least comfortable and least prepared. It was here that she was most closely anchored to the score on her music stand, and she tended to gasp for breath in some of the faster sections. Still, the orchestra brought out lots of lovely detail in the texture, and nothing could detract from the beautifully peaceful ending.