Ryan Wigglesworth Takes Over Beethoven Choral Symphony


Beethoven, Huw Watkins: Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), Clara Mouriz (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Matthew Rose (bass), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 19.1.2018. (PCG)

Huw WatkinsSpring (world première)

Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op.25 ‘Choral’

St David’s Hall was packed for this concert, which was originally intended to showcase the orchestra’s popular principal guest conductor Xian Zhang. She had already led the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a televised performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at last year’s Proms. In the event illness forced her to cancel her appearance, but the audience had no reason to feel short-changed in any way. Ryan Wigglesworth proved to be an excellent substitute and the orchestra delivered a rendition of the score for him which turned out to be every bit as good as their Prom outing (as far as I was able to judge from the television sound last August). Michael Garvey, to whom fell the unenviable task of announcing the replacement, had no reason whatsoever to be apologetic.

At the time of that broadcast Xian Zhang had vouchsafed the information in an interview that she always sought to re-interpret the works she conducted for each performance, using a fresh copy of the score on each occasion. It would have been interesting to hear her new take on the symphony, especially as the Proms performance seemed to me to suffer from some vacillating speeds during the scherzo and elsewhere. Ryan Wigglesworth, on the other hand, gave us a rock-solid steadiness of tempo in that movement (complete with all the repeats that Beethoven demands—he wrote additional bars particularly to allow for them) and the result was meteoric in its impact. Similarly, Wigglesworth gave the first movement all the weight that the music demands, and the flecks of violin melody at the opening made their full impact without being overstated. The conductor, himself a composer of course, gave us a full-blooded romantic interpretation of the score which brought the audience cheering to its feet at the end; and the final calls brought a delightful touch of humour as he returned to the stage after the applause had ceased to ask for an additional bow for the cellos and basses for their delivery of the recitatives at the outset of the final movement (if this was an error, it was an enjoyable one). In any case, the playing of the orchestra was throughout a miracle of clarity and superbly judged balance. The only point at which I might query Wigglesworth’s well-judged speeds was during the sudden slow passage of four bars during the coda, which could have been even more pronounced to more stunning effect. Matthew Rose launched the choral section of the score with all the power and ferocity that one could wish, although the positioning of the soloists behind the orchestra and at the front of the choir did no favours to Allan Clayton during his delivery of Beethoven’s frankly near-impossible demands during the march section. The chorus covered themselves in glory. I must also acknowledge with due gratitude the provision of full texts and translations in the BBC programme (the last two occasions on which this symphony has been performed here, the relevant bodies failed to supply these at all).

Before the interval we heard the first performance of Huw Watkins’s Spring, a BBC commission. This proved to be a delightful, if not particularly spring-like, work (or maybe this was just the influence of the freezing cold temperatures outside the hall). Woodwind skirls and figurations like flowing water surrounded a rhapsodic central section where a rather beautiful chorale melody extended itself across the orchestra in a manner suggestive of growing warmth.  Indeed, I sometimes felt that this sense of warmth could have been more richly conveyed as against the rather insistent woodwind patternings, but maybe this was simply the way that the composer imagined the music. The piece, around quarter of an hour in length, made for rather a short first half, but the work was not over-extended for its content and struck me as one of the composer’s most engaging scores.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and the programme is being repeated in Swansea the following day when it will be relayed in a future afternoon concert. It will well repay listeners either to look out for that later programme, or to access the live relay on the BBC iPlayer.  I should also mention that Ryan Wigglesworth is scheduled to conduct this same orchestra in a concert the week after next when the programme will include an extract from his own opera The Winter’s Tale. I look eagerly forward to it.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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