Music spanning four centuries of British composers promised for an interesting programme, which Ryan Wigglesworth delivered in tonight’s Prom with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. But with little else to link the works included in tonight’s Prom beyond the composers’ nationality, would it come together to form a coherent performance? Well partly.

Ryan Wigglesworth © Benjamin Ealovega
Ryan Wigglesworth
© Benjamin Ealovega

Commissioned for 1939’s Festival of Music for the People, Britten’s Ballad of Heroes was written to commemorate the British men and women who joined the International Brigades to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Drawing on contrasting texts from pacifist WH Auden, and Randall Swingler, demanding an active response to “fight for peace”. Offstage fanfares bookend the opening Funeral March, and the largely unison text was delivered with powerful clarity by the BBC National Chorus of Wales, their fine diction only lost at points when the full orchestral weight overpowered them slightly. The wildly manic Dance of Death that followed could have been wilder, and some of the chorus entries were slightly rushed here against the steadier tempo set by Wigglesworth. Toby Spence delivered the final movement’s recitative with great presence, and impressive precision in Britten’s challenging, leaping lines. The choral response, an unaccompanied chorale, had great commitment and secure tuning from the BBC NOW. The final epilogue delivers Swingler’s message once again to “numberless Englishmen” to remember those that fought, and those that still go off to fight – a powerful message in 1939, and today, making this the most affecting of this evening’s performances.

Leonard Elschenbroich deserves a medal for the huge challenge of learning Brian Elias’ complex Cello Concerto at short notice. The concerto was written for Natalie Clein, who unfortunately had to withdraw from tonight’s world première. Throughout its four joined movements, the emphasis is on a conversation of musical elements passed between soloist and orchestra. There are relatively few moments of extended solo passages, other than in the lyrical Adagio. However, Elias makes great use of orchestral colours in the exchanges, with shrill clarinets and brass with percussion particularly dominating the first movement. The complex scherzo, drawing on the poetic form of the sestina for its structure, passed its six elements around the orchestra, with quirky trumpets and the woodwind once again used to produce shrill tones. The lyrical, sad Adagio provides a heart to the concerto and here Elschenbroich took the opportunity to allow the cello to sing. The finale exploits the cello’s highest registers, and the concerto’s opening low motif returns at the top of the fingerboard, backed by piccolo and a solo violin, forming a distinctive conclusion, the soloist being finally left aloft and alone. With considerable demands placed on all sections of the orchestra, Wigglesworth and the BBC NOW showed admirable command.

Elgar’s arrangement of Purcell’s motet Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei is a strange concoction, and ultimately one that is not entirely successful. As a curiosity for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester Cathedral in 1929, one suspects it was a bit of a programme filler to add something else for the chorus and two soloists to do. It was not heard again until it was revived at the same festival 66 years later in 1995. Purcell’s remarkably daring harmonies are not really allowed to speak in Elgar’s heavy orchestration, and it is really only in the section he leaves unaccompanied (Ego cubui et dormivi) that the music is allowed to shine through, a sure sign that Purcell’s music would have been best left alone. Once again the BBC NOW’s tuning and ensemble were exemplary. The two brief, rather odd solos from Toby Spence and Nicholas Perfect, though admirably sung, didn’t really add much to proceedings, and one is sadly left with the overall question “Why?”.

We were on much more familiar Elgar territory for the final work in tonight’s programme – the ever popular Enigma Variations. Wigglesworth’s reading here lifted proceedings, and in particular, the pianissimo playing he demanded of the orchestra was most effective. This was particularly powerful in their controlled, almost repressed opening to Nimrod, only allowing a very slow warming of the sound, which rightly meant that the climax had its full impact, before he took the orchestra right back down to pianissimo. At times, the string sound could have been fuller: for example, in RPA they needed more string weight to contrast with the pastoral woodwind delicacy. In WN, the violins did not always pick up carefully enough on the delicate placement Wigglesworth got from the woodwind. However, this was overall a strong reading, with great brass sweeps in WMB and Troyte, and expert solos from the viola and cello principals. A sound performance, restoring Elgar at his best to conclude the evening.