PROM 10: A Colourful English Prom from the BBC Philharmonic and Juanjo Mena



United KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 10. Walton, Moeran, Horne, Elgar: Tasmin Little (violin), BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 25.7.2014 (RB)

Walton: Variations on a Theme by Hindemith
Moeran: Violin Concerto
David Horne: Daedalus in Flight (London première)
Elgar: ‘Enigma’ Variations


I would estimate that the hall was about 95 per cent full which is pretty good for an all-British concert… and on a sweltering evening too. The BBC Philharmonic with Juanjo Mena, its chief conductor since 2011, smooched rather than strode into the Walton Variations. This is a work I have usually found brilliant but gem-hard – the Szell effect; not so tonight. Sure, there was brilliance – that’s hard-wired into a Walton orchestral piece. Here, however, the abiding impression was of a soft and romantically subtle focus. The playing and direction was attentive to dreamy and misty ambience. There was merriment too and the sedulous attention to instrumental detailing even reminded me of his arch-rival Britten’s Young Person’s Guide. In the 1970s Walton wrote his own variations on a theme by Britten. Several times Mena seemed to be referencing Walton’s opera Troilus and Cressida. The Pandarus character several times haunts these pages both in simpering humour and in tempest.

This is the third time since May this year that I have heard the Moeran Violin Concerto live. Before that I had only ever encountered it on radio, LP or CD. The first was at Kings Lynn with the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra. On that occasion the violinist was Pauline Lowbury. The solo line was beautifully taken with a fine satin tone rather than the sort of peachy fleshiness to be heard from Campoli or Sammons in the various archive recordings. It was deeply moving, even if the heroically ambitious orchestra was rough and ready. The second was at the inaugural concert of this year’s English Music Festival with Rupert Marshall-Luck taking a more languorous and philosophical stance. That concert was broadcast by BBC Radio 3.

The Moeran is a laid-back piece with the same floor-plan as the Delius Violin Concerto: two slow movements encasing a fast one. Even that middle movement has a magnetic pull towards contemplation although commentators make much of its feral Irish rural dance-floor ambience. This poetic aspect plays to one of Mena’s principal strong suits: the propensity for the sublime and for poetry already displayed in the Walton. I suspect he would make a world class Song of the High Hills.  Even so among all that dewy stillness and muted ardour there is room for the sort of pecking buoyancy delivered by the French horns. In the second movement the richness of the strings proved the most affluent of all three performances that I’ve recently heard. The music positively basks in the resulting glow but not at the expense of the lively scudding strings. Tamsin Little has already recorded the Moeran for Chandos and there have been several BBC studio broadcasts. It is well and truly ‘under her fingers’ although she did play with the score in front of her. The image put across was of delicate fairy-folk dancing rather than of ruddy-faced farmers hoofing it. The Tchaikovskian cadenza – almost token in its brevity – prepared the ground for the glorious expanses of the finale. The effect of solo and orchestra – a true marriage of mind and heart between soloist, orchestra and conductor – was deeply moving with the final moments coming as a satisfied ebbing pulse – lost in the sunset.

David Horne’s Daedalus in Flight is the length of a concert overture.  Its source is in the Icarus legend: flight, exhilaration and pursuit. The orchestra is large with plenary modern percussive apparatus in place and kept active. The music roils and growls in a series of what feel like short sentences – links in a chain-mail hauberk. Each link is an outburst that resonates away, overlapping with the next. The whole is crammed with aggressive incident – a study in shuddering convulsions. Towards the end the swelling and receding becomes more lyrical – somewhat in the manner of Tippett’s Rose Lake and Triple Concerto.

I had the impression that Mena was revelling in the Elgar too. His demonstrative caring and even caressing of the music recalls André Previn’s podium style; the music was treated to lavish eloquence and even the great burly variations were rounded with affection. Ken Russell would have loved this Enigma. How strikingly Mena took the Dorabella variation. He made it sound like an escapee from one of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suites. Delightful, and yes, the nobilmente was well and truly in place but here was an Enigma with ballet in the ascendant.

Rob Barnett

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