Prom 12: Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – Helen Grime and Beethoven’s ‘Choral’

Helen Grime
Meditations on Joy [BBC co-commission: UK premiere]

Symphony No.9 in D-minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Eleanor Dennis (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezz-soprano)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Michael Mofidian (bass-baritone)

 BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ryan Wigglesworth

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 23 July, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ may have been evicted from its penultimate Prom berth long ago, but it remains ever a pillar of the BBC Proms ethos, even in as quizzical and often evasive a performance as this from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth. Like the Fifth, Beethoven’s Ninth is a dark-to-light progress, here culminating in an explosive setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, and to get us in the joy groove the UK premiere of Meditations on Joy by Helen Grime (born 1981), a 15-minute, orchestrally large-scale three-movement work first heard in Los Angeles earlier this year. The work’s emphasis, though, is on meditation, with any joy defined more by antitheses such as melancholy, anticipation and anxiety. In her programme note Grime writes that the work is based on three poems but keeps them to herself. The third movement ends ‘with a sort of lullaby’, which might point the listener in a particular direction, but a work as obviously personal as this casts its expressive net wide. The scoring is clean, luminous and hugely inventive, ranging from craggy Janáček-like eruptive brass to mysterious string underpinning. It might seem initially illustrative, but line and gesture dominate, and, in as well-prepared a performance such as this, it creates its own elusive world.

It was only when the bass-baritone Michael Mofidian and the BBC Symphony Chorus seized the day so magnificently in Beethoven’s Finale that I got the point of Wigglesworth’s approach to Beethoven’s grand plan. At least, I think I did, as the previous three movements’ sense of accruing stature left no other way forward than the vocal one. It was a strange progress, a briefly and marvelously elemental opening to a first movement that was almost defiantly un-monumental, with Beethoven’s scoring sounding almost skeletally clean and minimalist. Any minor-key drama was unpicked by the brilliantly played Scherzo, delivered with a fairy-like grace that Mendelssohn would have recognised, along with the faultless precision of all the rhythmic games. Perhaps lofty internalising would gather in the Adagio, but despite the overall shadowy sound and some fabulous horn-playing, the overriding impression was one of gentle grace, very alluring but a little light on the grit needed to register the rhetoric just before the move into the Finale – here seriously sabotaged by some lusty applause, but the curse of the Proms inter-movement clapping is now a lost battle.

Wigglesworth’s approach had been increasingly romantic, and this became fixed not with a bang but a whimper, as the Finale’s famous melody, barely audible at first, opened out with colour and confidence. Nicky Spence’s tenor rang out with beery swagger in the Turkish march, an irony that Mahler would surely have appreciated, and the vocal quartet was completed by radiant, substantial singing from Eleanor Dennis and Karen Cargill. The BBC Symphony Chorus was on glorious form, those strenuous top notes impressively unshredded, and effortlessly creating the epic choral perspectives that sound so well in the Albert Hall. The playing was superbly agile and responsive, and Wigglesworth’s way worked, eventually.

1 thought on “Prom 12: Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – Helen Grime and Beethoven’s ‘Choral’”

  1. Just listened to the Beethoven, which was of no great distinction or merit. In the first movement Wigglesworth’s rhythmic attack was light and reminiscent of Mendelssohn, the timpani were far too subdued and there was no sense of drama. The Scherzo was a competent run-through, devoid of tension, while the slow movement was too fast – indeed the coda sounded like an extension of the Scherzo – and devoid of spirituality. In the orchestral introduction to the finale the sublime recitatives for lower strings were too lightweight and under-characterised and the chorus was far too small.

    I did also wonder if the audience were perhaps new to classical music, because, for some inexplicable reason they applauded every movement, including the Adagio, which is totally unacceptable. To make things worse, when listening from home, you also have to put up with the very poor sound (are the BBC aware that you can stream in 24/192?)

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