featured composer – Brahms
Symphony No. 1
London Philharmonic Orchestra
“Conductors who truly grasp what Brahms is about are few and far between. Wigglesworth showed here that he is one of them. This was conducting of real intellectual grip, conscious that Brahms is above all a master of concision and musical structure, not the sonic wallower to which lesser conductors reduce him. From the defiant opening – wonderfully played – to the explosive celebrations of the closing bars, Wigglesworth channelled Brahms’ energy into a dynamic and convincing performance. The fast tempos that he adopted for the closing movement seemed to grow naturally out of the score, rather than to be externally imposed for effect. It set the seal on an evening of high quality orchestral conducting. On this form, we have another British conductor worthy to be judged with the very best.”
Martin Kettle, The Guardian
“Wigglesworth’s conducting manner is deceptive. He gives the impression of being fairly easy going, with restrained arm movements and an apparent calmness of body, but there was a discipline here and a good emotional drive…It was interesting to hear an interpretation of the finale that tapped the music’s natural momentum to propel the movement forward so urgently. There was no hint of ponderousness here, and the principal theme on the strings was shaped with eloquence and richness. Elsewhere, sense and sensibility found an equilibrium, tension and repose were reconciled. The first movement had considerable muscle and fire, the second highlighted some mellifluous instrumental solos, and the third had refinement and grace…There was a sense of coherent argument [in the finale], a firm directional pull and the feeling of the whole orchestra working towards a common goal.”
Geoffrey Norris, The Daily Telegraph
“Today our concert halls are saturated with performances of Brahms’ First Symphony which tend towards the rhetorical and the sensational. What made Wigglesworth’s interpretation so ‘musical’ was his rigorous control over symphonic structure, where all four movements became a unfolding unified whole. Throughout, the conductor maintained a rock-steady tempo and wide dynamic range, making this a dramatic and powerfully direct interpretation.
The opening movement can often sound like a detached interlude but here it had great urgency and fluidity coupled with a grace and delicacy which seemed to flow naturally in to the Un poco allegretto, where Wigglesworth adopted an agile and buoyant tempo, drawing out some illuminating and impassioned playing from the entire orchestra. The Allegro was like a mirror image of the first movement in the way Wigglesworth had a total grip on tight structure, steady tempo and orchestral balance. Here the LPO strings had a majestic weight and the brass, in particular the horns, had a radiant glow.
Many conductors today have a tendency to slow down in the closing passages, which is not indicated in the score, for rhetorical and sensational effect but on this occasion such this was eschewed in favour of authenticity, and the conductor kept faithfully to the score, as he did throughout this performance.
This was certainly an account of this work as close to Brahms’ intentions as we are likely to hear today.”
Alex Russell, Musicweb-International
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
“How was [Mark Wigglesworth’s] Brahms? Answer: Like second nature. As if to leave no doubt of his comfort level, Wigglesworth conducted the Brahms First without a score. Nor was this a high-wire act. The music came from the heart as well as the head. Here was a young man’s Brahms, brisk and incisive, yet at the same time singing and soaring. As the work’s grand brass peroration dies away, the packed house responded with a powerful, sustained ovation, and the musicians joined in.”
Lawrence B. Johnson, Detroit News
“The Brahms was first-rate: sharply focussed, exceptionally paced, rhythmically incisive yet fluid and alert to subtle colours and dynamics. Most telling was the balance of head and heart – Wigglesworth’s firm control over Brahms’ formal complexities and the disciplined playing he commanded from the orchestra never squelched a direct expression of the score’s emotional struggle and journey from darkness to triumph. The bracing opening set a tone of high drama that relaxed in the lighter inner movements before gathering increasing strength and speed in the finale. The DSO strings produced a tone of dark, supple richness that spread through the winds and brass. Wigglesworth passed the Brahms test.”
Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press
Symphony No. 4
The Cleveland Orchestra
“Wigglesworth treated the Brahms Fourth as the complex and exhilarating essay it can be when all of the musicians are deeply involved. The performance emphasised the score’s aching beauty, intricate counterpoint, and spaciousness, though not at the expense of its inner vitality. Lyricism is key to Brahms, and Wigglesworth tapped into the symphony’s warmth by shaping the music in large, rounded phrases. He was never in a hurry to move on to the next episode, but he also didn’t linger unnecessarily, a weakness of some conductors.”
Donald Rosenberg, Cleveland Plain Dealer
The Piano Concertos with Stephen Hough
‘The conductors with whom (Stephen Hough) works do not accompany. They collaborate, and do so in the fullest sense, with an open-minded approach to the score that yields interpretative fruits as fresh as those disclosed by the soloist. Interpretations built from the ground up, un-beholden to any threadbare tradition, and abundant with heretofore neglected details result.
Mark Wigglesworth leads the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg in a trajectory that from the timpani thunderclap punctuating the pedal point surge that launches the D minor Concerto, enacts the relentless unfolding of implacable tragedy. This is undoubtedly young Brahms, but without a trace of reticence or ambivalence. Towering, angular chords have edges that could slice stone and the strings’ high-register trills shriek in recoiling alarm. When energy subsides and the piano enters, Hough is at pains to articulate gently swaying quavers with Brahms’ non-legato, legato and staccato indications, long since ignored by everyone in favour of an undifferentiated legato line. The effect is immediately striking – a disconnect – as though the protagonist inadvertently wandered onto a scene of such violence and devastation that he is unable or unwilling to comprehend what surrounds him. Thus, through the accretion of another two dozen instances of close reading, intelligent contrasts and eloquent rhetoric, do Hough, Wigglesworth and the Salzburgers construct a towering edifice, conjuring waves of power and tapping veins of poetry from the depths of this perhaps least guarded of Brahms creations. The Adagio moves quickly enough to allow for the application of exquisitely wrought rubato at appropriate junctures without risk if collapse; it concludes with a cadenza that could be the ascent of an angel. Rhythmic vitality and crystalline textures imbue this Rondo whose escape from death seems a vigorous, ritualised dance.
The seemingly vast Bb Concerto requires radically different strategies. Without sacrificing grandeur or mass, this performance is distinctly colourful and shapely – one is almost tempted to say lithe. Significant credit is due to Wigglesworth, whose close attention to balances render the orchestral choirs luminous, and whose wonderfully coaxing, elastic beat never becomes ponderous. Hough seems constitutionally incapable of the pasty-thick textures, constantly raised dampers, glacial tempos and muddy colours with which many pianists baste this piece in particular, in the name of a ‘Brahms’ sound. He demonstrates time and again how a leaner sound allows this music greater flexibility, not to mention enhanced expressiveness through subtly shaped phrasing. The scherzo whips up terrific passion, only to be startlingly disarmed by the understated lyricism of the trio. The slow movement comes as close as any I know to the time-stopping starry firmament that Artur Schnabel and Adrian Boult created in 1935. And I confess – pace Backhouse, Rubinstein, Serkin, Richter, Fleisher, Angelich et al – I never knew the Rondo could sparkle with such grace and wit. Both Marcus Pouget’s cello obligato and the uncredited horn solos are superb.
Dyed-in-the-wool devotees of Brahms, as well as those who desperately need a new take on him, will find here much to savour and ponder.’
Patrick Rucker, International Record Review; December 2013
“Wigglesworth is pact and taut in rhythm…The impression I have here is of readings that have divested themselves of excess baggage and are lighter on their feet…I ended up delighted by and in complete admiration of Hough’s boldness. He has become a warmer player of increased range in Brahms, and unafraid to take risks.”
Gramophone Magazine; January 2014
“Clearly working in absolute rapport with Mark Wigglesworth, they achieve together a lean, at times almost wiry sound…yet there is no lack of muscular force or orchestral power in the many big moments. Hough brings an unusually wide range of keyboard colour to bear on Brahms’s piano-writing.”
BBC Music Magazine; February 2014
‘The conductor Mark Wigglesworth scrupulously prepared his musicians and their medium-weight sound offers the best of both worlds: chamber intimacy if needed, but also clear textures whenever the notes thicken. As for drama, the orchestra launches the first concerto with spectacular tension, urged forward by timpani tremors as baleful as rolling thunder. When the caressing second motif arrives, it’s time to mop the brow.’
Geoff Brown, The Times; November 29th 2013
‘The most noticeable thing about these interpretations is their freedom. Recorded at the Festival Hall in Salzburg with the orchestra of the Mozarteum and conductor Mark Wigglesworth in January, these performances are paragons of carefully modulated musical storytelling. The coordination between conductor and soloists is remarkable, resulting in subtle rubato, pauses and dynamic shifts made in perfect lock step. Hough is a master of the velvet touch, while Wigglesworth gets utter clarity and balance from his orchestra. With this sort of freedom with the music, there’s always the threat that the overall interpretation will be less than the sum of some very pretty parts, but both concertos come out as impeccably rendered wholes that also delight in the little details. Hough can come off as a bit mannered at times, articulating details in some passages that are usually performed more evenly and changing some common phrasings, but his personal touches all make sense in the context of the bigger picture.’
John Terauds, Musical Toronto; December 13th 2013
‘Stephen Hough has previously recorded Brahms’s piano concertos, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Davis. That was more than twenty years ago and he has not denied himself or us the music since. His January 2013 view of these expansive works is documented here, with the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg and Mark Wigglesworth. The current collaboration is a very productive one.
If the name of the Salzburg-based orchestra suggests fewer personnel than is the norm, then whatever size the ensemble is, the clarity and weight of the playing seems about ideal, and Wigglesworth’s conducting is deeply considered as well as being sympathetic to Hough. There is plenty of timpani thunder and horn blaze at the opening of the mighty D minor Piano Concerto, and woodwinds and strings are in parity; detail abounds. From Hough’s first entry the music is kept on the move without rush or glossing over possibilities. From tenderness to tempestuousness the pianist has the music’s measure. As ever with Hough, his playing is never sterile or hectoring – a myriad of touch and dynamic contrasts testifies to this – and enjoys a bygone approach to flexible phrasing and also invests a healthy disturbance when required. The piano, a Steinway, has a particularly attractive tone, warm and pellucid, never harsh yet with real depth of tone, and allows no end of expressive solos; the opening of the wonderful slow movement, a benediction, cuts one to the emotional quick. No lack of energy and cut and thrust, either, which the outer movements abound in. This is in short a virile and moving performance, sensitive and searching, that repays numerous return visits.
So too the majesty of its B flat successor with a ripe horn solo to open. Once again Hough’s love of and experience in Brahms’s music shines through in numerous personal touches that illuminate the music while also being unshakeable in terms of integrity. The space of the opening movement is well attested to, poise, drive and reflection made as one. The scherzo that is the second movement is suitably passionate, and the slow movement opens with the distinct advantage of the solo cellist being adjacent to the pianist (rather than espied by him straight ahead through the piano and its lid), a consequence of Wigglesworth using antiphonal violins and placing the cellos centre-left. It means that Marcus Pouget, in his beautifully rendered contribution, can act as a partner to the pianist, exactly what Brahms intended in this rapt and ardent outpouring. As for the finale, its relaxed playful quality is highlighted, with some elastic stretch and so beguilingly in the process.
All-round excellence here, then, naturally recorded and with a good musical balance, rich and rounded. Hyperion is offering the two CDs for the price of one.’
Colin Anderson, ClassicalSource.com; December 2013