When Hummel wrote his Trumpet Concerto and Tchaikovsky his Fifth Symphony, the chances are they didn’t ever expect to be on the same programme as an intergalactic message. Yet this is what the 21st century brings us – exciting programming and an occasional hankering for mixing crowd favourites with the less familiar. Ryan Wigglesworth was the eleventh-hour replacement for Xian Zhang, who had withdrawn due to illness, but the curating for the London Symphony Orchestra’s latest outing could have been made-to-measure for either Zhang or Wigglesworth, who both revel in pitching the unfamiliar alongside the traditional. And this concert also toyed with our emotions a bit too.

James Fountain, Ryan Wigglesworth and the London Symphony Orchestra
© LSO | Mark Allan

First, something to pique the curiosity. Zhang premiered Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s Primal Message in 2020, Wigglesworth giving its first UK performance here with the LSO. Inspired by the “Hello!” message sent to the universe nearly 50 years ago by the Arecibo Observatory, Ngwenyama wondered, “What should we put in a message that we’re sending 25,000 light years away?”, if it was a musical message. 

The result was a nine-minute fantasia built around primal relationships and numerical connections. But for the listener, this intellectual approach actually revealed straightforward emotions with an overriding feeling of warmth, reminiscent of early Ives, and after a brief ethereal opening evoking a sense of uncertainty, the music settled into an expansive series of comforting melodic lines, developing subtly before ending Ngwenyama’s message of emotional intelligence abruptly with a quizzical flourish.

Next, something joyful and frivolous. Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto is a staple of the instrument's repertoire, and James Fountain, the LSO’s own Principal Trumpet, breezed through the piece with care and precision. His bright tone and delicate articulation lent itself well to this concerto, contrasting smooth legato lines with chippy staccato, and while it’s never hard for the trumpet to be heard over the orchestra, Fountain’s art was in balancing the softer passages so that they didn’t overpower. The Mozartian first movement showed Wigglesworth in fine form with the LSO, bringing vibrant strings and lyrical woodwinds to the fore and letting the trumpet do its thing, while the Rondo saw Fountain fizzy and cheeky, with tongue-twisting virtuosity. That said, and while it was a satisfying performance, it still felt slightly methodical.

Ryan Wigglesworth
© LSO | Mark Allan

Lastly, something unashamedly passionate. I recall a conductor in rehearsal once describing the climaxes in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony as primal urges. Wigglesworth preferred a controlled approach, more coiled spring than all-out Bernstein, letting the music play out naturally. The performance was not without its drama, sensuous and committed, with Wigglesworth picking out fine detailing and culturing careful phrasing. The playing was superb – lush strings, luminous woodwinds and hearty brass – but on occasion things started to feel a bit staid, while other moments tended towards the mawkish. But there was much to savour: the sweep of the first movement, the nostalgic horn and oboe solos in the second (glitches aside), the jaunty woodwinds joking around in the Valse, notwithstanding passages that tripped over themselves, and the vigorous frenzy of the Finale.