Juanjo Mena and BBC Phil Deliver a Stunning Elgar Performance

Anthony Burgess, Brahms, Elgar: Stephen Hough (piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Juanjo Mena (conductor). Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 28.9.2013. (MC)

Anthony Burgess: A Manchester Overture (1989)
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 (1854/59)
Elgar: Symphony No. 1 (1904, rev. 1907/08)
Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and introduced by presenter Catherine Bott

My shackles were up when I saw that Anthony Burgess was to have his A Manchester Overture performed at the opening concert of the 2013/14 BBC Philharmonic season titled ‘The Mancunian Way’. What had this author of A Clockwork Orange fame done to deserve this honour? Could they not have programmed something by John Ireland for example? Ireland had strong connections to Manchester having been born just a dozen or so miles up the road in Bowdon and his music deserves to be heard more-  or maybe some music by William Walton could have been played. Like many people I didn’t realise that Burgess was such a prolific composer considering him almost exclusively a writer. Largely self-taught Burgess wrote around 250 music scores, including symphonies and an opera, and regarded himself more as a composer who wrote than a writer who composed. All that said, A Manchester Overture is written in a readily accessible style punctuated by wind motifs over a dense bank of strings. During the performance I detected strong echoes of Frank Bridge, Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland infused with a splash of William Walton. Hearing the Burgess overture could never be described as life affirming but it’s a worthy score, exuberant and full of vibrant colours, possibly a touch overlong but I was glad to have the opportunity of hearing it.

Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor is notoriously difficult to pull off successfully and soloist Stephen Hough is certainly no stranger to the work recording it back in 1989 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis. When Brahms played the solo part in the second ever performance of the score in 1859 at Leipzig it is recorded that the end was greeted by hissing. No similar hostile reception occurred from the welcoming Bridgewater Hall audience yet my overall response to the performance was somewhat mixed. Hough is a fine pianist and almost immediately I was admiring his clean crisp articulation. Full of liberal doses of angst and passion the opening movement Maestoso exhibited the soloist, conductor and orchestra operating in agreeable harmony. Hough seemed especially comfortable with the brisk exhilaration of the Rondo: Finale playing the syncopated rhythms with assured vigour. But it was the central movement Adagio, which in the right hands can feel heavy on introspection with a strong sense of yearning passion, where the soloist didn’t convince. Never seeming to fully engage with the music Hough communicated a cool emotional detachment. Consequently that rarely achieved but definitely attainable meditative, almost reverential quality wasn’t revealed.

It was Hans Richter who was entrusted to conduct the première of the Elgar Symphony No. 1 in A flat major at Manchester in 1908. Four days later, prior to the first London performance Richter had said to his players “Gentlemen, now let us rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer – and not only in this country.” Last season Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic had remarkable success with the Mahler Symphony No. 5 and Bruckner Symphony No. 9 both masterpieces from the Austro/German tradition, consequently the large Manchester audience had been eagerly anticipating Elgar’s A flat major score. Given a satisfying performance of elevated dignity in the opening movement there was a perceptible feeling of nobility. With its scuttling and darting main theme the dramatic Scherzo-like second movement contained a thrusting momentum. Often loud and sometimes ferocious the playing under Mena’s firm control never got out of hand and I particularly admired the seamless transition to the heartbreaking theme of the Adagio. Indeed the performance took on a jaw dropping quality so intensely passionate that it could easily have evoked the deep sorrow of lovers parting before a long ocean voyage. With insightful playing of such generosity I don’t think I’ve heard the Adagio sound as moving. Radiating grandeur in the final movement Mena provided just the right balance of robust rhythms and decisive forward momentum. Throughout the confident brass section could be heard splendidly – bnot like the brass heavy BBC orchestra of a previous generation – and the string playing was characterised by a quite gorgeous bloom. Quite simply the performance of the Elgar was a triumph.

Michael Cookson