Ryan Wigglesworth, a former Hallé Principal Guest Conductor, returned to the north-west to give the UK premiere of his own Magnificat, followed by a magical reading of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

The Hallé and Hallé Choir in Bridgewater Hall
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

Wigglesworth’s framing of the Magnificat is as “the Virgin Mary’s personal manifesto”. With inspiration acknowledged from Monteverdi and Bach, there are also strong Mahlerian aspects evident. Its scale, for starters, is huge, lasting 30 minutes and calling for mostly triple woodwinds, six horns plus bumper, four trumpets and trombones, five percussionists (though no timpani), harp, piano and celesta, not to mention fiendishly difficult writing for a huge choir and soprano soloist. Some might raise an eyebrow at the practicality of writing for such forces in austere times, though this is a new commission which sat up and demanded to be heard again.

The aesthetic of the Gospel of Luke text here spanned solemn reverence to festive joy, and bleak desolation to fervent anguish, an emotional palette which Mahler himself would probably have admired. The murmured horn opening and pianissimo soprano entry hung in the air magically, only to be shattered by sudden torment, the chorus repeatedly hurling out the word “Magnificat” itself with utmost urgency. The Hallé Choir sang their challenging part with apparent assurance and animated passion, though their hushed whisperings above bass drum were spine-tinglingly soft. Sophie Bevan, here given a busy evening on her return to the concert hall, delivered her own demanding part with superb charisma, most of all in creating a sense of imploring urgency in the text.

Sophie Bevan
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

There was much to admire in the orchestral playing, too, memorably in the Scherzo-like second movement’s woodwind and violin solos. Wigglesworth also delivered a unique sound world full of atmospheric percussion, seeing piano and xylophone hammers bounce off one another amid clatters of rute, metallic tam-tam and flurries of vibraphone. In the final minutes, brass festivities joined a huge choral sound, before a brief prologue for celesta in the work’s last bars. The audience reception was as enthusiastic as any I’ve heard for a premiere, and I will look forward to hearing Wigglesworth’s Magnificat again.

Ryan Wigglesworth conducts the Hallé
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

Upstaging a Mahler symphony is no mean feat, but indicative of the quality of what had gone before. Wigglesworth navigated the Fourth Symphony with a clear sense of direction, emphasising as its emotional heart the slow movement, which was treated like some great sacred text. Occasional uneven patches elsewhere suggested that rehearsal time had perhaps been focussed on the Magnificat, but there was nonetheless space to appreciate some elegantly rubato tempos, creating above all a sense of light and space in the first movement. 

The Scherzo’s horn and violin solos (the latter delivered by leader Roberto Ruisi on a ‘spare’ violin at his side) were immaculately realised. The finale positively brimmed with life, Bevan singing with utmost control and elegant timbre alongside character which was in turn playful and tender, while strings accompanied with luxuriant legato.