sat 20/07/2024

Proms Festival Orchestra, Wigglesworth, BBC Proms review - brilliant work in progress, perfect Adagietto | reviews, news & interviews

Proms Festival Orchestra, Wigglesworth, BBC Proms review - brilliant work in progress, perfect Adagietto

Proms Festival Orchestra, Wigglesworth, BBC Proms review - brilliant work in progress, perfect Adagietto

Freelance musicians prove an army of generals, marshalled by a great British conductor

Mark Wigglesworth conducting the Proms Festival OrchestraAll images by Chris Christodoulou for the BBC

You don’t expect a great orchestral string section to be born overnight, yet under the circumstances of the Proms Festival Orchestra’s rapid creation and only three rehearsals of three hours each, this was more than good, with detailed articulation demanded and delivered.

You also wouldn’t have expected, until it was announced a few weeks back, a big Mahler symphony in a slimmed-down Proms season.

What a cause for celebration beyond the sheer feat of freelance musicians coming together, many after a long performing silence (which also meant, mostly, Mahler’s too). What we should perhaps call “the Mark Wigglesworth Mahler Fifth” (the conductor pictured below) knew its mind from the start, moved decisively and often rapidly, hit the high points with infallible brilliance and brought a vintage roar with footstamping from a very full Albert Hall, including a packed arena (by which stage you just had to forget the worry that only roughly five per cent of people in the hall were wearing facemasks; we know now that simply producing a vaccine certificate at the door doesn’t prevent infection). Mark Wigglesworth at the PromsThe coruscating, joyful craziness of Mahler’s finale pre-empts an encore, so they played that first in the shape of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Eric Coates on steroids. Well-defined raciness followed fanfares from the most brilliant trumpet section I’ve heard at the Proms this year – major-key grandeur to be offset the lone funeral celebrant at the beginning of the symphony. It’s worth repeating that Mahler’s opening solo tells you a lot about the performance to come, and Chris Evans’ delivery certainly did: dazzlingly full, taut rhythms, fearlessness on reaching the big blaze.

This was really the brass’s evening; the horn section, too, was hyper-brilliant, with an infallible obbligato solo from Laurence Davis in the tumbling central Scherzo ("the world without gravity," Mahler dubbed it). If the wind made less of an impact, that had a lot to do with Mahler’s priorities in this symphony, such a different world from the Fourth, which up to this point was the only one of the nine possible under Covid restrictions, in an equally riveting interpretation from Robin Ticciati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Glyndebourne. Are Ticciati, Pappano and Wigglesworth our finest conductors in this beleaguered but still, no thanks to what's happened recently, musically magnificent island? Everything they’ve done in recent years suggests so. Proms Festival Orchestra Wigglesworth dared much in his urgent driving forward where necessary. It kept at bay the usual sense of flatulence in the second movement – companion-piece to the funeral march, revisiting its music in some especially poignant, refined playing here from the PFO cellos. You felt that perhaps the madcap acrobatics that follow the Scherzo’s first twilight zone carried on infecting the rest of the movement, not all of which has to feel so dangerous. But the Adagietto was, in my books, as perfect tempo- and flexibility-wise as Ticciati’s account of the Tristan Prelude earlier in the Proms (I didn't sit there with a stopwatch at the performance, but radio revisit revealed it clocks in at nine minutes - something of a golden mean when the timings can range from seven to 18). This may not be the deepest-digging string section as yet, as a slight lack of ballast in the first-movement welters indicated, but it can manage the right inwardness, while clarity in the fugal riots of the finale was impressive indeed. And yes, the Proms audience’s reaction to the last tumble took us all back to the great events of previous years. No Vienna or Berlin Philharmonics this year, but so much commitment and quality from our own players at every turn.


It’s worth noting that the reviewers comment of the string section not being the ‘deepest-digging string section’ is surely down to the lack of forces, normally you would expect 18 1st violins for a Mahler, due to social distancing this wasn’t possible. Very strange remark given the heavily reduced section numbers.

16 would be best, but 12 first violins isn't exactly 'heavily reduced'. But I take your general point.

Hmmm, take Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra on YouTube for example, you’ll find 18 first violins, alongside many other performances with these forces. In total you’re looking at a total string size reduction of give or take 20 players, I would say that’s a pretty heavily reduced, given the brass heavy orientation of this work.

Your point about the brass-heavy nature of the symphony is certainly valid.

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