Mena Takes Two Orchestras on a Stunning Alpine Journey


United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Richard Strauss: Roderick Williams (baritone), William Dazeley (baritone), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra & Hallé/Juanjo Mena (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 23.1.2014 (MC)


Juanjo Menphoto Chris Christodoulou
Juanjo Mena photo Chris Christodoulou

Festival Prelude, Op. 61
Four Songs with Orchestra:
1. Notturno, Op. 44/1
2. Hymnus, Op. 33/3
3. Pilgers Morgenlied, Op. 33/4
4. Nachtlicher Gang, Op. 44/2
An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64


This spectacular concert, a coming together of players from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hallé under Juanjo Mena, and featuring the Alpine Symphony forms part of a series of concerts at the Bridgewater Hall titled Strauss’s Voice to mark the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birth.

A jubilant curtain-raiser to the concert was a rare opportunity of hearing the Festival Prelude for large orchestra and organ. Written for the inauguration of the organ in the Great Hall of the Vienna Konzerthaus in the presence of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, Strauss completed the score in 1913 breaking off time spent working on the Alpine Symphony. Opening the work to dramatic effect the Bridgewater Hall organ played by Jonathan Scott propelled straight into the work with a succession of thundering chords, resounding majestically through the hall. Reminding me at times of Elgar’s ceremonial pomp but without the memorability of themes, especially notable in the work’s twelve or so minute duration were the festive trumpet fanfares and the gloriously rich sound of the hundred or so strings. It’s often said that Strauss isn’t at his most inspired with the Festival Prelude but I rather relished the sonic experience and the chance to hear this occasional work performed live. In a work brimming with activity it’s all too easy to become distracted and forget Maestro Mena’s role in keeping everything together so tightly.

Strauss wrote over two hundred songs and orchestrated over forty of them. As well as performing the symphonic poems the Strauss’s Voice series centres on all the orchestral songs of which I counted forty-one programmed for the series. With the exception of the celebrated Four Last Songs and a few others most of the orchestral songs are scandalously neglected in the concert hall. I’m finding it a highly rewarding voyage of discovery hearing most of these for the first time in live performance. Tonight’s concert featured a pair of English baritones performing four early, nicely contrasted and rarely heard orchestral songs; three sung by Roderick Williams and one by William Dazeley. Having had great success with a number of recent appearances at the Bridgewater Hall the totally assured Williams has the innate ability to make his projection seem effortless, if at times lacking additional vocal colour. Williams opened with Notturno (Nocturne) at over thirteen minutes the longest song Strauss wrote. A setting of German poet Richard Dehmel the text concerns the distressing search for and then the dreadful discovery of a dead friend. In this accomplished and remarkably demanding setting Williams gave a performance of deep concentration, suitably dark, anguished and achingly desolate. Praise is indeed due to leader Lyn Fletcher for her poised violin solos. Originally thought to be a setting of a Friedrich Schiller text the Hymnus (Hymn) is now credited with authorship by Friedrich Schilling. Intensely elegiac containing a quasi-Greek mythological theme and opening and closing with harp accompaniment, there was a natural warm glow to Williams’s enthralling rendition. Displaying splendid resilience in Pilgers Morgenlied (Pilgrim’s Morning Song) Williams entered into the spirit of the declamatory text and revelled in the joyously passionate story of love. After the interval things got even better with the thrillingly performed final song Nachtlicher Gang (Evening Stroll) Strauss’s first ever setting of a Friedrich Rückert text. Appearing on the stage almost from nowhere William Dazeley burst vigorously into the song, singing confidently from memory, forthrightly taking the listener with him on the stormy midnight journey racing perilously to the house of the poet’s sweetheart. The wide dynamics requested by Mena’s of his Manchester players served to enhance the tempestuous effect of the work. I can’t wait to hear Nachtlicher Gang again soon.

 A Strauss biographer describes an incident when the fourteen year old Richard Strauss had been climbing the Heimgarten mountain in the Bavarian Alps and during a long, gruelling day experienced a frightening yet thrilling adventure which included getting lost and being caught in a thunderstorm. In addition at his beautiful villa in Garmisch, Strauss had a magnificent view of the Alpine peaks the Zugspitze and the Wetterstein from his study window. Strauss’s love of the Bavarian Alps was enduring and he never forgot his teenage Alpine adventure and thirty years later he illustrated his experiences in music with An Alpine Symphony. It comes as no surprise that the Alpine Symphony has never been a common fixture in the concert hall owing mainly to the massive forces required. Gaining a reputation in some quarters as being too overblown the work became unfashionable. Thanks to the series of concerts entitled Strauss’s Voice it was a privilege to have the opportunity of hearing An Alpine Symphony at the Bridgewater Hall. In previous concerts Maestro Mena has demonstrated his masterly control of large orchestral forces and this supercharged performance heaving with incident over its Alpine landscape was remarkable from the first bar to the last. Applying a firm grip on the proceedings Mena’s markedly effective momentum contained an often hair-raising power, overwhelming in its passionate intensity and grandeur. I was struck by the spectacular section ‘On the Summit’ commencing with a spectacular trombone fanfare theme followed by a contrasting calm episode for oboe solo over tremolo violins before the strikingly dramatic climax on reaching the mountain summit. Amid all the excitement the quality of fine detail can often be missed. I noticed the sensitively weighted cowbell sequence, a cascade of tumbling harp and violin glissandi, a magical short section for cor anglais over the organ, evocative birdcalls from the clarinet and flute and the yodelling oboe, while a friend commented on the perfectly synchronised crash of the quartet of cymbals.

 Under Juanjo Mena the performance of An Alpine Symphony was a simply stunning experience. The whole concert was something special and will live long in the memory.

Michael Cookson