Trajectory. I shall return to this theme again and again in my review, without apology, for it pervaded this smartly programmed concert in so many ways. The featured composers were all British and the works charted a trajectory from the early twentieth to the early twenty-first century. Notably, all these composers are also well regarded as conductors not only of their own works but also a wide range of repertoire. Ryan Wigglesworth may not yet be as famous as Elgar and Britten but, on the evidence of this concert, he may well be one day.

Ryan Wigglesworth © Sophie Siem
Ryan Wigglesworth
© Sophie Siem
It is a particular privilege to hear a composer performing their own music live. Not all composers turn out to be the best proponents of their own music, but it would be hard to imagine Wigglesworth’s Études-Tableaux sounding better in another’s hands. Like many of the great composers of the past, Wigglesworth has recycled material from a past (in this case, withdrawn) work. The composer’s own programme notes revealed his intention to “forge…a single arch-like shape” from its component sections.

Scored for a large orchestra, including celeste and percussion, the work broadly has three main sections. Though it was commissioned in Cleveland the piece could have been written for Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, so impressively did it fill the space, particularly in the opening waves of colourful sound. These gave way to a cor anglais solo before the hall was filled again with rumbles and crashes aided by the percussion section. Wigglesworth ensured that his deliberate silences in the middle section of the work really registered, punctuated as they were with sinister string glissandos and culminating in a haunting clarinet solo. Oliver Janes, not long the CBSO’s principal, has clearly mastered the hall’s acoustic as he filled it exquisitely. A more frantic, scherzo-like section followed, featuring complex changes of time signature deftly directed by the composer.

The calmer coda featured brass chord harmonies with shades of the composer whose work was to follow: Benjamin Britten. Our Hunting Fathers was Britten’s audacious first work for full orchestra and features some of his most interesting orchestral effects. It is a song-cycle and was composed for a “high voice” soloist. The less than successful première featured a soprano but this performance was given by tenor Mark Padmore.

Though it was tempting to titter at this point in the performance, particularly given Padmore’s theatrically terrified expression and realistic (yet musical) cries, the subject matter of W H Auden’s prose is deadly serious. Britten and Auden were only too aware of the creeping rise of fascism in Europe and Our Hunting Fathers was their response. The use of sinister Mahlerian marches and muted fanfares reflect this most explicitly. Padmore was excellent, always clear and audible in all but the fullest orchestral moments of accompaniment. Most memorable for me was his rendering of “Fie, fie, fie…” in Messalina; a heartbreaking transition from impassioned outcry to almost no sound. The orchestral accompaniment was alert and exciting throughout with Adrian Spillett’ s sardonic xylophone refrain and Amanda Lake’s violin solo particular highlights in the tonally challenging Epilogue.

Trajectory was the name of the game once again in Wigglesworth’s reading of Elgar’s Symphony No 1. This was a performance that knew where it was going: from the forward march of the opening nobilmente (truly both andante and semplice here) theme all the way to it’s triumphant reprise in the piece’s coda. Requiring little recourse to the score, Wigglesworth had the measure of both the sweep and sinews of the “greatest symphony of modern times”. This was a composer demonstrating a deep intellectual understanding of a fellow composer’s construction; every tempo relationship carefully considered and each section paced just right. Yet, there was nothing clinical or detached in Wigglesworth’s interpretation. Climaxes registered with cumulative impact in the epic first movement and tender cello and clarinet solos at its close were touching indeed.

The CBSO’s playing was nothing short of staggering. This is an orchestra with a hell of an Elgar pedigree and I’ve heard them given some very fine performances of his music in the past, but this was something else. The cynic (and conductor) in me expected something in the execution to falter along the way, not least the tricky violin pickup into the final movement allegro given its daring speed and unfussy direction. Surely, the central section of that movement couldn’t be made to sound so poignant without an excessive drop in tempo and, yet, it was. There was no question by the symphony’s close that this was the most remarkable live performance of it I’ve experienced. 

*****