With Xian Zhang struck down by the ‘flu, Ryan Wigglesworth stepped in at short notice to direct an admirably personal Beethoven Ninth after the world première of Huw Watkins’s Spring with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Ryan Wigglesworth © Benjamin Ealovega
Ryan Wigglesworth
© Benjamin Ealovega

The orchestra’s homegrown composer-in-residence Huw Watkins created Spring as his second commission from the BBC. Many will remember his first, a cello concerto for his brother Paul, at last year’s Proms. Playing to a packed St David’s Hall, the fascinating new work got a deservedly well publicised first outing. Watkins’s brief programme notes, at a mere seven sentences, leave much to the imagination and one’s own interpretation, but they do stress that this is not a musical depiction of the season, but a piece of which the opening bars happen to “suggest that time of year”. The attractively bubbling opening figures and subsequent translucent string pizzicato certainly hinted at the brisk freshness of the early spring, but the most memorable passages to my ears were the icy, almost Sibelian brass chords and even a hint of Stravinsky’s Rite in the central climax, with its chattering winds. This gave way to some elegant string writing before the music once again dissolved back into the same thready atmosphere of the opening bars. This was a curious but fascinating interpretation of the season which will certainly deserve further attention via the radio broadcast.

With the change of conductor, one might have expected a rather straightlaced bash through Beethoven’s great D minor symphony. Far from any suggestion of falling back on established orthodoxy, though, Wigglesworth’s uncomplicated, utilitarian direction brought out a nuanced and thrilling reading, backed by high calibre orchestral playing and the superlative BBC National Chorus of Wales.

With a large string section and modern trumpets and drums, tonight’s account of the symphony made no attempt to shy away from Romantic vigour. From the very outset, the sound was full and bristling with tension at the relatively slow tempo set by Wigglesworth. One sensed an occasional tendency for the orchestra to want to push on somewhat, but the opening movement instead took on a sense of monumentality worthy of Bruckner. Towering tutti passages and echoing silences alike were highlighted, though a number of lesser details in the woodwinds also made their way through to the front of the stage. The climactic tumult of the recapitulation was a thrill to behold in its roaring timpani and brass. The descending figure of the coda, held to a spine-tingling pianissimo, was pure Bruckner and sent a shiver down the spine.

For all the large-scale grandeur of the first movement, the Scherzo zipped along with admirably clean textures, as each appearance of the main theme brought a new depth of biting intensity. The Adagio, by contrast, was exceptionally slow and reverential, treated like some great elongated prayer. There was enormous warmth in the string sound and a memorably attractive passage of interaction between the woodwind principals. 

The finale declared itself in a slightly chaotic cacophony while the audience were still adjusting in their seats, before giving way to an utterly immaculate cello and bass recitative. Their subsequent murmur (and nothing more) of the “Joy”  theme was magically soft and yet always moving insatiably forwards. The eventual tutti peroration of that theme was given with all the joy of ringing brass and full-length-of-bow violin strokes. Matthew Rose was the clear pick of the soloists, fully projecting his call to arms out into the hall (and, visually, to the choir standing immediately behind him). The brisk Turkish march was wonderfully lively, even if the orchestra gave tenor Allan Clayton a run for his money in making himself heard. Elizabeth Atherton and Clara Mouriz both sang with attractive roundness of tone and no threat of excessive showiness.

The chorus, tackling Beethoven’s notoriously challenging writing, sang the symphony about as well as I have ever heard. Every consonant was crystal clear, every chord immaculately balanced and every detail in the middle ranges expertly detailed. The choral passages in the latter minutes of the symphony were filled with enormous expression and attention to the meaning of the text, before a riotous, thundering coda which fully justified its standing ovation.