Mark Wigglesworth opened the BBC Philharmonic’s new season with an enticing programme of Wagner, Vaughan Williams and Elgar, the latter’s Second Symphony here played with strikingly sure-footed grandeur.

Zoë Beyers, Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic
© Jenny Whitham | BBC Philharmonic

Several organisational changes were apparent before the music even began. Omer Meir Wellber, who only took up post as Chief Conductor in 2019, quietly and suddenly departed over the summer, for unclear reasons. The orchestra has to-date only announced the first half of its season, and clearly has work to do in finding a new Chief. This evening, for better or worse, they decided to allow drinks from the bar into the auditorium. Many would also have raised an eyebrow at the 26 bright blue lightsaber-like lamps stationed around the stage for this evening’s concert. 

All that faded into insignificance with the shimmering light Wigglesworth extracted in the Prelude to Act 1 of Parsifal. With an immaculately balanced golden glow from the brass and a wonderful string sound, shimmering in the violins and richly velvety in the violas and cellos, this was one of the most magical season openers I have heard in the concert hall.

Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending was another shrewd choice, clearly bringing in a substantial chunk of the audience. The orchestra’s leader, Zoë Beyers, played the solo line with assured virtuosity and crisp ornamentation, accompanied sensitively by her colleagues in the orchestra. There have been more fragile larks – this was a relatively robust account – but as a musical arc which mesmerised a large audience, this was masterfully judged.

Mark Wigglesworth conducts the BBC Philharmonic
© Jenny Whitham | BBC Philharmonic

Happily the orchestra resisted any urge to link tonight’s Elgar, with its dedication to the late Edward VII, to the recent royal funeral. In repertoire largely dominated by the city’s other symphony orchestra, the Philharmonic here showed a very different style of Elgar to that which local listeners are accustomed to. Wigglesworth’s vision of the symphony was something of a surprise in its brightness and optimism. With the exception of the slow movement, this was a grippingly vivid, colourful reading, constantly propelled by a sense of lively urgency. In the first movement, Wigglesworth’s tempo changes were attended to with utmost responsiveness by his players, and the quick pacing and bold dynamics made for a heady start. At times it felt a little frantic, tirelessly loud and racing onwards perhaps, but it was certainly exciting.

The slow movement was also relatively big-boned, but with a sense of spaciousness and nostalgic grandeur, before a breathless dash through the flighty Scherzo. The finale was again sunny and sure of itself in its briskness and bold dynamics, striding ever onwards with ennobled splendour. At times it bordered on brashness, though there was nonetheless a lot to appreciate in some superb solo playing, memorably from the horns and timpani. Similarly, the victorious sweep of the music was compelling, and the heart ovation was well deserved. The television and radio broadcasts later this month will be worth hearing.