BBCSO/Watts/Wigglesworth review – a striking song cycle that finds divine in the everyday

Barbican, London
Elizabeth Watts’s buoyant soprano drew us in to this poignant performance of Ryan Wigglesworth’s work Till Dawning, based on the poetry of George Herbert

Had Mahler been drawn to English poets he would surely have found a good match in George Herbert, whose words find the divine in the everyday, mixing the sensual and the spiritual. The composer and conductor Ryan Wigglesworth has certainly found them inspiring: his song cycle Till Dawning is an absorbing 20-minute work setting verses from Herbert’s 1633 collection The Temple. With Wigglesworth conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it worked well here as a lead-in to the weightier but similarly ripe soundworld of Mahler’s Symphony No 5.

Till Dawning was premiered in piano-accompanied form by Wigglesworth and his wife, Sophie Bevan, in 2018; Bevan also sang the orchestral premiere that year but is now undergoing cancer treatment, and so it fell to Elizabeth Watts to sing this, the first UK performance of that full version. Watts’s soft-edged, buoyant soprano and clear diction put it across compellingly, really drawing us in during the quietest passages. Wigglesworth’s sparing use of his orchestra gave her the space to achieve this.

The music leads us in gently; the first of the four songs, The Agonie, starts with the harp and celesta worrying around a single note and other instruments catching and repeating it, as if we were in a room full of clocks ticking at slightly differing paces. This soundworld opens out to encompass striking touches of colour and drama – the growl of the contrabass clarinet; chatty high woodwind; moments for argumentative, unyielding brass that still allow the voice to come through. At the end of the fourth and final song, Easter, the simplicity returns, with the opening few lines repeated like a folk song. Here, it made for a poignant and effective conclusion.

As for Mahler 5, the opening was dark and measured, the string sound in the Adagietto luscious, the climaxes tense. Yet the transparency of the playing in the first half was gone, smothered in Mahler’s thick orchestration. Perhaps Wigglesworth’s attention to balance needed to be even more stringent in the Barbican’s noisy acoustic. As it was, with fortissimo following fortissimo, it felt as though we were climbing a mountain, unable to see the top until the very last moment.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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