If there was to be an award for the most multi-talented classical musician in the UK, it would surely go to Ryan Wigglesworth. Born in 1979, he seems to be everywhere – as pianist, conductor and composer – and all at the top level. But this programme with the Hallé Orchestra, featuring the UK premiere of his Violin Concerto, posed a question: can Wigglesworth’s early promise as a composer survive his success as a performer? The two strands are supposed to feed off each other, as they have done with his mentor Oliver Knussen, but if you conduct a lot, you risk cluttering your mind with other people’s music. It would be a pity if Wigglesworth’s composer-career became dependent on his usefulness as a performer.
The concerto was first heard in Amsterdam two years ago, since when Wigglesworth has revised it – how much is hard to tell. The Manchester performance by Barnabás Kelemen, with the composer conducting, suggested that either the revision did not go far enough, or the musical ideas were not strong enough in the first place. I suspect the latter.
Framed by an introduction and epilogue, the piece follows a standard fast-slow-fast structure, running for 17 minutes without a break. According to the composer’s note, it was conceived as a “pursuit” of the simple melodic material at the start – a brief, arresting motif, both tender and sombre, played by violin and harp. The problem with this “pursuit” is that the motif quickly disappears under a welter of all-purpose rhapsodic orchestration, leaving the soloist as a side-show. When Wigglesworth does give the violin a profile, as in its quiet, far-too-fleeting dialogues with double-bass and horn, it turns out to be a snatch of music, almost apologetic. Even the neo-Elgarian cadenza sounds detached from all around it.
Let’s hope Wigglesworth’s next commissions – a song-cycle for this summer’s Aldeburgh festival and a stage work for English National Opera’s 2016-17 season – turn out better. In the meantime, the Hallé’s lively performances of the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes and Debussy’s La Mer showed Wigglesworth in superior guise as a conductor.