Passion and Commitment in BBC Phil’s Mahler Five Performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Mahler: Steven Osborne(piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Juanjo Mena (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 12.10.12 (MC)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 19, K459 (1784)
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (1901/02)

Juanjo Mena , © photo Sussie Ahlburg

Last year at the Philharmonic, Berlin thePittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck played Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 as part of the Musikfest Berlin 2011. It was the evening of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities in the USA and there was a distinct frisson in the air. The Pittsburgh players were at the top of their form giving a wonderfully exciting performance which for me has become a benchmark of performing excellence for this much loved score. At the Bridgwater Hall Juanjo Mena was conducting the BBC Philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 – a score that continues to maintain a firm hold in the concert repertoire. Still in my head was Honeck’s magnificent Berlin account together with the memory of the BBC Philharmonic’s rather uneven performance under Mena at the all-Wagner evening two Saturday’s ago at the Bridgewater. I had some concerns over what manner of performance Mena would be able to pull off.

I needn’t have feared, as Mena responded to the multifarious moods of Mahler’s score with a passionately committed account that provided gripping excitement. Magnetic from the very start the Basque maestro conveyed a judicious balance between beautifully expressive playing and care for the overall architecture of the score. In the opening of the nightmarish Trauermarsch (Funeral March) the intensity of weight and expression hit me and sent a shiver down the spine. Immediately one noticed that the brass was in fine condition and the strings radiated a gloriously silky sheen. In the following movement, a magnificent creation, who could fail to be impressed by the playing which exploded with such anger, spitting out poisonous venom. The overtly pictorial Scherzo felt like a sharp walk through stunning Alpine vistas with Mena communicating the sights and sounds along the route with penetrating clarity. Especially striking was the playing of the horns, and the cello section are developing a distinctive rich firm tone which at their best can match the finest around. With his confidence at an absolute peak Mena directed a climax that was shattering in terms of exhilaration, volume and force pinning me back in my seat. Mahler’s declaration of his deep love for wife Alma, the justly famous Adagietto, sounded so intense and emotionally convincing that it would have broken the stoniest of hearts. Mena’s lush strings and harp were so ardently expressive it felt like warming morning sun was glistening on the dew-laden pastures providing growth and renewal. Just tripping along buoyantly with great excitement Mena infused the Rondo-Finale with a captivating sense of optimism. In the rumbustious final pages the reserves of sheer energy that Mena demanded from his responsive players was produced in spades. The performance was a triumph for Mena and the BBC Philharmonic.

In contrast to Mahler’s sumptuous late-Romantic world the Bridgewater audience had been treated to a concerto written some 118 years earlier by Mozart, an even more famous Viennese resident. Serving as more than a mere aperitif for the Mahler to come, Steven Osborne gave a captivating performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19, K459 such a beautiful work of classical restraint. Osborne demonstrated that he is a compelling Mozartian playing with elegance and intimacy held together by taut rhythmic control.

The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast.

Michael Cookson