Elgar’s First

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Wednesday 7th October, 7.30pm



  • Wigglesworth Études-Tableaux, 12′
  • Britten  Our Hunting Fathers, 27′
  • Elgar  Symphony No. 1, 52′
  • Mark Padmore’s encore / extra treat (with Elspeth Dutch and CBSO) – Britten – Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal

When Elgar’s First Symphony was premiered in 1908, the audience simply stood up and cheered. A century on, it’s still one of the most stirring experiences in British music, beginning and ending with what might be the best tune even Elgar ever composed. For Ryan Wigglesworth – a composer himself – it’s an inspiration. His colourful Études- Tableaux complements Britten’s extraordinary zoological song-cycle, sung by a truly great British tenor.

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Review by Norman Stinchcombe, Birmingham Post:

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…     “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!”     …


Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

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…     “His performance of Elgar’s First Symphony was warmly received, and the orchestra, with all its section principals on duty, played exceptionally well for him. There’s a bold directness about the sound he produces, and the detail he extracts from scores in a faithful acoustic such as Symphony Hall’s. Even if he sometimes fussed, exaggerating ritardandos or adding minute dynamic changes, the thrust of each movement was clear and purposeful, and the return of the main motto theme in the finale’s closing bars as conclusive as it ought to be. 

That ear for detail had been obvious, too, in Our Hunting Fathers, Britten’s astonishingly precocious “symphonic cycle” of 1936, one of his greatest early achievements. Every instrumental strand was tinglingly vivid. Mark Padmore was the immaculate soloist, though occasionally a bit too restrained; there’s more savage irony in the setting of some of the texts than he allowed, though the path he managed to steer though the verbal thickets of Auden’s prologue and epilogue was admirably lucid.”    …


Review by Peter Marks, BachTrack:

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…     “Padmore was excellent, always clear and audible in all but the fullest orchestral moments of accompaniment. Most memorable for me was his rendering of “Fie, fie, fie…” in Messalina; a heartbreaking transition from impassioned outcry to almost no sound. The orchestral accompaniment was alert and exciting throughout with Adrian Spillett’ s sardonic xylophone refrain and Amanda Lake’s violin solo particular highlights in the tonally challenging Epilogue.

Trajectory was the name of the game once again in Wigglesworth’s reading of Elgar’s Symphony No 1. This was a performance that knew where it was going: from the forward march of the opening nobilmente (truly both andante and semplice here) theme all the way to it’s triumphant reprise in the piece’s coda. Requiring little recourse to the score, Wigglesworth had the measure of both the sweep and sinews of the “greatest symphony of modern times”. This was a composer demonstrating a deep intellectual understanding of a fellow composer’s construction; every tempo relationship carefully considered and each section paced just right. Yet, there was nothing clinical or detached in Wigglesworth’s interpretation. Climaxes registered with cumulative impact in the epic first movement and tender cello and clarinet solos at its close were touching indeed.

The CBSO’s playing was nothing short of staggering. This is an orchestra with a hell of an Elgar pedigree and I’ve heard them given some very fine performances of his music in the past, but this was something else. The cynic (and conductor) in me expected something in the execution to falter along the way, not least the tricky violin pickup into the final movement allegro given its daring speed and unfussy direction. Surely, the central section of that movement couldn’t be made to sound so poignant without an excessive drop in tempo and, yet, it was. There was no question by the symphony’s close that this was the most remarkable live performance of it I’ve experienced. ”     *****


Review by Rebecca Franks, Times (££)

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