Golden Sonorities from BBC Phil’s Brass in Bruckner’s Ninth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J.S. Bach, Bruckner: Julia Doyle (soprano), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Manchester Chamber Choir, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Juanjo Mena (conductor). Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 16.11.2012. (MC)

J.S. Bach: Cantata, BWV 147 ‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben’ (1723)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 (1887/96)

At the 1910 Three Choirs Festival hosted by Gloucester Cathedral Ralph Vaughan Williams conducted the world première of his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. In the Cathedral audience that evening was Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells. It is often said they were left so spellbound by the music they strolled the streets of Gloucester after the concert unable to sleep. Well, after such a towering performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Juanjo Mena that will live long in the memory I wasn’t wandering the streets of Manchester as I had to undertake my not inconsiderable drive home. Nevertheless, I can emphasise with the feelings of Gurney and Howells that night as here I am two days after Friday evening’s concert still buoyed by the experience. This is only Mena’s second season as the orchestra’s chief conductor yet he has already gained a reputation as an eminently gifted interpreter of large symphonic structures. In the last two seasons with the BBC Philharmonic at the Bridgewater Hall Mena has given hugely impressive accounts of the Bruckner Symphonies 6 and 7, the Mahler ‘ResurrectionSymphony and a month ago a Mahler Symphony 5 of distinction.

Torment and anguish plagued Bruckner whilst writing his Ninth Symphony a score he intended to dedicate to God but one he never lived to complete. Despite the physical and mental instability of Bruckner’s final years his breath-taking writing feels remarkably assured, technically daring and harmonically formidable. Undaunted, Mena and the BBC Philharmonic tackled Bruckner’s awesome structures with resilient assurance conveying a rich orchestral sonority. Mena’s spacious dynamics were masterful culminating in incandescent climaxes of remarkable weight and power. At a couple of points I felt the surging orchestral force pushing me back into the seat. Pleasing was the amount of fine detail that was revealed, especially in the woodwind – a feature so often clouded on recordings. Forming such an integral part of the orchestra it felt as if the blazing Philharmonic brass, including four Wagner tubas, had been dipped in liquid gold. The string section was also in remarkable form, of an elevated standard rarely heard from a British orchestra. Characterised by the harrowing emotion of the Adagio the effect of the string playing was at times spine tingling.

Maestro Mena seems to like contrasting a giant late Romantic symphony with a lighter late-baroque work by J.S. Bach. I recall in late 2011 alongside Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony Mena programmed the heart-warming opening section of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. To counter the intensity of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony to come Mena opened the concert with the Bach Cantata, BWV 147 Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. This two part score is remembered principally for its chorale movements containing the famous melody known as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Although I am more accustomed these days to hearing Bach played on leaner more transparent sounding period instruments, Mena’s light touch ensured that this was never going to be a heavy big-band Bach performance. With regard to tempi, I was surprised when the first chorale was taken along quicker than I am used to hearing it. Of the several impressive solo contributions the prominent trumpet part was quite stunningly played deserving special mention. Mena had certainly chosen a fine quartet of vocal soloists, underpinned by the magnificent baritone of Roderick Williams and it was good to hear the distinctive voice of counter-tenor Robin Blaze in such fine condition. It felt that the Manchester Chamber Choir had been well drilled, acquitting themselves well. When fully warmed up and attuned to the pace of the orchestra their lively contribution contained a pleasing unity in a performance that certainly lifted the spirits.

The concert was being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

Michael Cookson