Andante. Nobilmente e semplice: the softest of timpani rolls ushers in a nostalgic motto theme, whispered on violas and woodwinds, supported by the gentlest tread of cellos and basses. Within two pages, the entire orchestra restates this theme, by which time one is usually brushing away a tear or two. Is Elgar’s First the greatest symphony composed by an Englishman? Hans Richter, conductor of the 1908 première, may well have agreed, extending its virtues beyond these borders: “the greatest symphony of modern times… and not just in this country.” Yet last night’s Proms performance by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales left me completely dry-eyed. For all the brilliance of the playing, Mark Wigglesworth could have been conducting Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan, such was the ebullience and élan with which much of it was dispatched, leaving poor old Elgar rather bruised.

In the first movement, we were swept away on a passionate tidal wave of sound, which nearly foundered on the rocks as an impetuous, almost schizophrenic character was established. There was bluster aplenty in the second movement, while over-enthusiastic timpani and bass drum ensured plenty of attack as the finale thundered off. Wigglesworth wrapped up the various themes from earlier movements coherently and made a decent case for the symphony as a confident, youthful statement of intent, but it felt too bracing much of the time. The most successful moments came in the Adagio third movement – unsentimental at a flowing tempo, but the BBCNOW’s mellow string sound provided welcome moments of balm.

Matthew Trusler © Sheila Rock
Matthew Trusler
© Sheila Rock

The slow movement (Andante flessibile) was also the most successful part in the London première of William Mathias’ Violin Concerto. Completed shortly before he died in 1992, this finely crafted concerto made a positive impression. What struck me most was that, in stark contrast to last week’s première of Gabriel Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto, Mathias sets out the orchestra as supporting accompanist, reluctant to steal the limelight. Vibraphone and glockenspiel textures create the base over which the violin weaves a magical spell in the opening movement. Mathias’ subtle scoring always kept the soloist, here the honey-toned playing of Matthew Trusler, to the fore. If the opening Molto moderato overstays its welcome, the punchy scherzo – underpinned by tangy percussion – was short and sweet.

The third movment draws on medieval Welsh elegies as its inspiration, with much lyrical writing for violin, including a cadenza in which echoes of folk melodies waft in like ghosts from the past. A furious Prokofiev-like passage of double-stopping launched the fiery Allegro con brio closing movement. Wigglesworth’s energetic but precise conducting certainly drew out the ‘brio’ aspect well.

Swift tempi worked in the concert opener: a breathless account of Wagner’s overture to Das Liebesverbot which revelled in its gaudy percussion scoring including castanets and tambourine. It is my prime choice to roll out as an after-dinner ‘guess the composer’ teaser; Rossini is the usual candidate proffered – someone last night offered Berlioz. No-one ever guesses Wagner. The last time I heard Wigglesworth conducting was at the Coliseum for ENO’s Parsifal. Das Liebesverbot is about as far away from Parsifal as you could travel and the exuberance was infectious. I just wish it hadn’t extended to the Elgar symphony.