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Review: Elgar's First by CBSO at Birmingham Symphony Hall

Ryan Wigglesworth's interpretation of Elgar's First was sensitive to the music's many beauties but sometimes cautiously over-respectful.

Solo pianist, conductor and composer Ryan Wigglesworth.(Image: Benjamin Ealovega 2009)

Elgar directed that the wonderful tune which opens his first symphony should be played nobilmente – meaning what? Nobly (obviously): but how exactly, how musically? If the conductor gets its wrong then the whole symphony can be scuppered. Ryan Wigglesworth opted for slow and solemn, reasonably enough, but surely it implies more than that? Elgar first applied it to Nimrod, in the piano transcription of the Enigma Variations, suggesting an elevated nobly heroic quality – perhaps even a touch of Barbirolli-style swagger.

Wigglesworth’s interpretation was sensitive to the music’s many beauties but sometimes cautiously over-respectful. The adagio shimmered handsomely (woodwind lines always a pleasure to hear) but this gorgeous slow music surges with repressed energy and shouldn’t be reduced to near stasis. The finale however crackled with energy, basses menacing, brass louring – a thoroughly satisfying climax. The occasionally sinister nachtmusik of Mahler and Bartok seemed to waft through Wigglesworth’s own colourful and fastidiously scored (and here brilliantly played) Études-Tableaux for orchestra.

The fearsomely high tessitura of the solo part in Britten’s youthful orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers didn’t intimidate tenor Mark Padmore. He attacked with gusto Auden’s knotty poetry which bookends the five songs, relishing the bloodthirsty Dance of Death with its catalogue of hounds and sharply characterizing the mock-religious exorcism of Rats Away! His Messalina was sung straight without the ironic self-dramatizing element Ian Bostridge finds there. His encore, Britten's Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal with Elspeth Dutch on horn, revealed the romantic, lyrical side of this highly accomplished singer.

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