The nominal connection between the three works in Friday’s BBC National Orchestra of Wales concert was “Literary Inspirations”, though a much more clear and direct link were their oscillating musical attitudes.

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Ryan Bancroft rehearses the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
© BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Establishing the paradigm for the evening was Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, eight minutes of rapid gear-shifting from punchy accents to melodic lyricism. Ryan Bancroft made it immediately clear what we were in store for, giving the piece a supercharged feel, turning Beethoven’s dotted rhythms into a raging heartbeat at the core of the music. In this context the melodies felt distinctly secondary, carried along by unstoppable momentum, never relaxing into them for a moment. Yet, in another sign of what would come later, Bancroft suddenly transformed everything into quiet solemnity at the work’s close which, coming after such breathless energy, felt all the more dark and foreboding.

In many ways the same only writ very much larger was the performance of Schumann’s Symphony no. 4 in D minor, heard in its leaner original version from 1841. That sense of quick oscillations in pace returned even more forcefully here, especially in the first movement, which in this version lacks an exposition repeat, plunging from its introduction and opening ideas into extensive development practically before we’ve had time to draw breath. Similarly, the lyrical second movement was brusquely driven along, though always allowing orchestra leader Nick Whiting’s solo line to speak clearly (his clarity of articulation here was excellent).

One of the other differences in this version of the symphony are brief passages when Schumann holds back the otherwise rapid (Presto) tempo. Bancroft absolutely went to town on these moments, treating the music like an elastic band that he would cheekily stretch back more and more, creating exciting build-ups of tension that, when released, made the tempo seem even faster than before. The Trio was rendered with the most gorgeous elegance, slower but still dancing, with its top layer of violins tumbling over the surface like streams of water. The finale was an effective synthesis of what had come before, again alternating between polarised attitudes of shout and song. There’s no denying that Schumann’s original lacks the heft of its 1851 revision (which many regard as a virtue), yet while there were times when the music sounded a touch underplayed, Bancroft’s imaginative approach to the twists of its drama kept it not only fresh but positively spicy.

While there was a huge stylistic contrast in Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, the traits that had typified both the Beethoven and the Schumann led to a strong overall sense of unity. Bancroft’s playful approach found a perfect counterpart in Ligeti’s mischievous material. The second movement was a case in point, progressing from sublimity – in the form of earnest folk-like music – to absurdity, as pitch was turned askew via a chorus of wailing ocarinas. Yet it soon became apparent that all this was on the same continuum of expression, one laden with honest enthusiasm that simply came out in a host of diverse forms.

Crowning them all was Anthony Marwood’s solo violin, sometimes a lurking presence teasing out individual notes within murky textures, elsewhere acting as a kind of barometer needle for where the music was heading, and for a while even vanishing entirely. Yet his role became increasingly demanding, and Marwood’s execution was nothing short of breathtaking. Following a fourth movement of fabulous nocturnal purity (like the stretched-out memory of a hymn), the work’s closing cadenza was a mesmerising progression from almost trivial noodling to a kaleidoscope of virtuosity. The concerto’s perfunctory ending set the seal on the evening’s wild oscillations, a bonkers tattoo of wild staccatos.