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Prom 20 review: Hough, BBCPO, Wigglesworth - towards the light fantastic | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 20 review: Hough, BBCPO, Wigglesworth - towards the light fantastic

Prom 20 review: Hough, BBCPO, Wigglesworth - towards the light fantastic

Dancing radiance transforms Haydn, Sawer and even Brahms's First Piano Concerto

'Is this really the end, then?': Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic have fun with the finale of Haydn's Symphony No. 99All images by Mark Allan

Romantic concerto, contemporary work, classical symphony: it's a common format at the Proms, but not usually in that order. Both David Sawer's 1997 firework The Greatest Happiness Principle and Haydn's ever-radical Symphony No.

99, sharing a light-filled second half, would normally be reserved as what composer Anders Hillborg once told me is known in America as "parking-lot music", taking the opening slot.

The idea here was to move from dark and steaky Brahms upwards into Haydn's heaven, but as it turned out there was plenty of dancing radiance in this unusual, often exquisite interpretation of his First Piano Concerto, too. It would really have to be so given that Stephen Hough, so ideal in Chopin and Schumann, is not a natural for the big later-romantic concertos (Brahms, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky). He got round the heavier double-octave stuff with plenty of sustaining pedal, but his chief gift, backed up by a constant clarity of line, emphasised how much introspection there is in this work.Stephen Hough and Mark Wigglesworth in Brahms's First Piano ConcertoMark Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic (pictured above with Hough) had an early hiccough, moving from the opening thunder - expert BBCPO timpanist Paul Turner welcome back after his prominent role a week earlier at the Proms but this time first among equals - to a rather protracted lyrical patch where the principal clarinet couldn't quite agree with the strings on the slow tempo. After that, their interweaving with Hough proved a perfect match at every point, and while we're used to a genuine pianissimo at the heart of the central Adagio, this was at least five pianos. "Bring the audience in, don't push out in the Albert Hall," Barenboim's immortal maxim, worked every time here. And the finale was sprung with remarkable good humour given its initial D minor territory, never blustery. In short, this was a clear-veined performance rather than a big-boned one, and worked, in its own unique way, just as well.

David Sawer (pictured below on the left) must have been pleased with the post-interval slot, where - speaking for myself, at least - it seemed so much easier to be alert to every surprising detail in his filigree orchestration once the opening had grabbed us by the throat. The philosophical concept of the piece, a fusion of Bentham's maxim "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" with his semi-circular 1791 design for a Millbank "penitentiary panopticon", must have been a good starting-point for the composer but wouldn't have "read" to the audience. The magic was really in the showpiece textures, muted trumpets especially effective, and the cut-down of lines after the buzzing start, which made us hear phrases and melodies that weren't actually there between the frenetic activity. It was all close in sound to John Adams's "foxtrot for orchestra" The Chairman Dances, but rather more filleted, intriguingly so. And the very funny-bizarre sudden splutter-out of the final bars drew genuine laughter from the audience.David Sawer at Prom 20So did the false and actual endings of Haydn's 1793 masterpiece. Many of us had heard it only a couple of weeks earlier, as the surprise finale to Simon Rattle's hit-and-miss ten-movement Haydn odyssey. But not only was this performance in a completely different league; it also fuelled my suspicion that Rattle would have been better off giving us two Haydn symphonies in the second half of his concert.

The BBC Philharmonic was a completely different animal from the patchy-sounding ensemble in Juanjo Menja's concert performance of Beethoven's Fidelio a week earlier. Again, you had to lean in to catch the finer nuances in the hall, but they were all there, from the striking timbre of the first E flat major chord - natural trumpets instantly brightening the sound - and the harmonic quirks of a marvellous introduction onwards. The minute you heard the little tune that pops up at the end of the exposition, you knew it was important enough to deserve more of the limelight - which it gets, surprisingly, in development, recap and coda (the first of several vital repeats was welcome, too).

Wigglesworth's extra inflections - bringing the bassoon chuntering to the fore before getting the player to turn down the volume, delicious hesitations for the Minuet's fluent trio with its high oboe line - were all a natural long distance from Rattle's mannerisms. The translucency he got from the players highlighted Haydn's gift for orchestration at every point (how marvellous that drums and trumpets come unexpectedly into the private, woodwind-enchanted world of the not-too-slow movement). And the delicious finale wore its erudition, if not its big joke - wrong-footing even those of us who knew the trick by making us succumb to premature applause - very lightly.

When I wrote about wanting to encore the scherzo of Haitink's out-of-this-world Schumann Second Symphony with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe several weeks back, I didn't think I'd be feeling the same again so soon when it came to  Haydn's outer movements. Music-making doesn't get any classier than in either Prom - and if that puts Wigglesworth on a level with Haitink, then so be it. Let's hope a world-class orchestra realises as much and puts our greatest British conductor in charge some time soon.

This was a clear-veined performance rather than a big-boned one, and worked, in its own unique way, just as well


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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