Seattle Symphony shines in Brahms and Elgar courtesy of Wigglesworth and Hough

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Elgar: Stephen Hough (piano), Seattle Symphony / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor). Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 12.11.2023. (ZC)

Mark Wigglesworth and the Seattle Symphony © Brandon Patoc

Brahms – Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major
Elgar – Symphony No.2

After an arguably slow start to its 2023-24 season, the Seattle Symphony is gearing up for a packed schedule in November and December which will include works by Brahms, Beethoven, Sibelius, Elgar and Mahler. For the opening concert of this ramp-up, the orchestra deftly tackled two major works in guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth’s first turn at the podium: Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.2, featuring soloist Stephen Hough, and Elgar’s Second Symphony.

Hough has frequently performed in Benaroya Hall over the years, often playing crowd-pleasing works by Rachmaninov. This time, he traded in Rachmaninov for Brahms, taking on challenging work composed during a productive time in Brahms’s life, which also yielded his Violin Concerto and Symphony No.2. Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1 dazzles with youthful bravura but, in contrast, the composer fills his Second Concerto with a varied and lyrical journey. The first two movements feature bracing moments, and the somber third movement includes longing paragraphs of music and affecting cello and horn solos. And if that was not enough, the piece concludes with a playful, catchy movement.

Hough masterfully navigated the concerto’s diverse moods. His performance was marked by dynamism, demonstrating an unforgiving intensity in grappling with the grand themes, yet unveiling overwhelming tenderness in the third movement with a sensitive touch that seemed superhuman. In the finale, Hough propelled the music forward with nimble finger work that exuded a contagious sense of joy.

Wigglesworth proved to be a commanding yet supportive conductor for the concerto: it was an impressive debut with the orchestra. He skillfully allowed them to unleash their full potential when the music called for it, yet he maintained a delicate balance between orchestra and soloist at other moments. Best of all, the orchestra sounded muscular – supported by sturdy playing from the low strings and brass.

After the intermission, Wigglesworth returned with another meaty work. Elgar’s Symphony No.2 unfolds as a gradual, contemplative journey, and its beauty flows without interruption by the existential drama typically associated with large symphonic compositions. The symphony’s muted radiance conceals an otherwise idiomatic, late-Romantic sound world. While traces of Mahler’s influence can be discerned in the orchestration, Elgar’s primary intention to honor King Edward VII lends the work a more intimate quality than anything Mahler could have envisioned. Wigglesworth conducted a dynamic performance marked by heartfelt expression, meticulous phrasing and discerning tempo choices.

Seldom are there performances where a guest soloist and a guest conductor are so expertly matched. Hough and Wigglesworth recorded the Brahms concertos for Hyperion, which demonstrated the possibilities of their musical partnership. Seattle audiences were fortunate to be able to hear this partnership firsthand. Wigglesworth also seemed to have established a strong relationship with the orchestra, resulting in a memorable performance of Elgar’s elusive masterpiece.

Zach Carstensen

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