Proms National Orchestra of Wales Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture
Tuesday night was Mark Wigglesworth's first Prom as Director of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. He has held the post since January, and having been Associate Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, he's hardly an unfamiliar figure. Still, it's early days to offer a wiseacre's verdict on the Welsh Orchestra's form, and Wigglesworth has a hard act to follow in Tadaaki Otaka.

Tuesday's programme began with a seamless suite - a medley, or even an endless melody, you might call it - from Wagner's The Mastersingers. It started beautifully with the quiet distillation of mellow wisdom which is the Prelude to Act 3, tripped into the Dance of the Apprentices, broadened - a bit precariously, at first - into the Entry of the Masters, and culminated in the Prelude to Act 1, which, though it certainly flowed, lacked its customary grandeur and energy, as if the effort of the preceding music had drained it all away.

But Wigglesworth and the Orchestra redeemed themselves in the final, full orchestral version Schoenberg made in 1935 of his First Chamber Symphony, composed for 15 instruments 30 years earlier. The lean and wiry original is probably much more familiar to most people, but the blow-up was a treat, even a revelation, for them, and in some ways a better introduction to those who didn't know the work in any form. Schoenberg significantly amplified points, identifying new peaks of excitement, without compromising the elliptical, fast-flying substance. True, the multiple woodwind and horns make the sonorities less modern, more like Gurrelieder, but the strings seem more capable of negotiating their highly athletic parts, and towards the end there are some thrilling contrasts when a solo quartet is picked out. It emerged as a real concerto for orchestra and was played not just with verve, but polish.

Brahms's Second Piano Concerto is sometimes compared to chamber music, even though it's one of the longest and most strenuous piano concertos in the repertoire - chamber music for grisly bears, perhaps. Stephen Hough is hardly one of those, and Brahms's awkward leaps in the first movement had him uncharacteristically blunting the definition of dotted rhythms. He was more his lean, incisive self in the fiery second movement. The slow movement was kept nicely on the move until the hushed sojourn in a sort of tonal no man's land that preceded the return of the cello solo, light and unsentimental in John Senter's hands. Wigglesworth and Hough seemed to have agreed to stop time altogether for a while, and colluded on some solo dallying in the frisky finale. Wigglesworth might have allowed a few more of his players besides the cellist to take individual bows; in particular, the excellent horn-player, a real clean marksman.