PROM 18: An Uplifting Program from Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic





United KingdomUnited Kingdom  PROM 18: Birtwistle, Ravel, Mahler: Alexandre Tharaud (piano); BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Juanjo Mena (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 30.7.2014 (CS)

Sir Harrison Birtwistle: Night’s Black Bird
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Mahler: Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor


Prom 18 was presented by the BBC Philharmonic and despite the shadows of darkness, grief and fear which united the programme, this was an uplifting evening.  This was the second of the orchestra’s four Proms’ appearances this year (in addition to the their contribution to the CBeebies Proms), and conductor Juanjo Mena guided his players through an utterly engrossing evening which makes their remaining performances – Proms 29 and 38, where they will play symphonies by Saint-Saëns and by Sibelius and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies respectively – look very enticing.

In an exciting performance of Mahler’s monumental Fifth Symphony, Mena demonstrated an impressive appreciation of the complex architectural form of the work as well as a desire to use the individual details of the score to create vivid and various landscapes, both literal and figurative. The five movements cohered to form a fluent whole even while the conductor emphasised the extreme changes of mood and the alternation between defiant extroversion and meditative stillness.

Jamie Prophet’s persuasive trumpet fanfare shook us to attention, the triplets clear and crisp, and the tone declamatory but not strident.  The strings’ rendition of the mournful funeral march which underpins the first movement was expressive and flowing, the tempo suggesting an inevitable tread onwards, stately yet restrained.  The cellos, in particular, produced a warm, firm tone which would be used to eloquent effect throughout the symphony.  As the movement progressed, the dignity of this theme was interrupted by outbursts of wilder despair, and such juxtapositions continued, and escalated, in the more feverish second movement, before Mena subdued the orchestra, after the blaring brass chorale, bringing the tempestuous movement to an eerie close.

If the two movements which form Part One of the symphony evolved naturally, in the third movement Scherzo Mena chose to exaggerate the contrasts between the numerous waltzes and ländler which interpose the darker passages.  The brass section rose to stunning heights, collectively and individually.  In particular, some fantastic playing from the whole horn section, marked by astonishing intonation and ensemble, was complemented by Andrew Budden’s obbligato contributions which made a significant impression.  Balancing the bright outbursts, the strings’ pianissimo pizzicati had real tone and resonance bringing movement and illumination to the dances.

After such intensity, the Adagietto was perhaps surprisingly restrained, the tempo slow, the dynamics subdued.  But, there was peace and serenity if perhaps without the moving undercurrents of Romantic angst; and while the strings were not encouraged to over-indulge in Romantic excess, the stepwise melodic lines were thoughtfully placed, the suspensions well-judged and the vibrato controlled.  Overall, Mena convincingly and consolingly established the gentle calm and surety of Mahler’s love for his wife, Alma.

The move to the concluding Rondo-Finale was swift, the bright vigour of the horns and woodwind at the start shaking away the stillness of the Adagietto and initiating airy fugato conversations which danced exuberantly.  Perhaps some of the emotive tension which Mena had communicated during Part One was missing but the heroism of the final brass chorale and the unceasing acceleration to the conclusion was thrilling.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Night’s Black Bird, which opened the concert, might be described as an orchestral ode to melancholy, drawing as it does on John Dowland’s lute song, ‘In darkness let me dwell’, with its dark colours and ‘weeping’ semitones.  Indeed, Birtwistle himself described both this work and its companion piece, The Shadow of Night (2001), as portraying a very Elizabethan melancholia – not a sickness (caused by excessive black bile) but rather an ‘inspired spiritual condition’, a meditative profundity inspiring creative outpouring.

Ten years after its premiere in Lucerne by the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst, Night’s Black Bird joined the substantial number of major works by Birtwistle to be performed at the Proms, and the first of his compositions to be heard this year, to celebrate the composer’s 80th birthday.   Extremely large orchestral forces are required – the five percussionists produce by turns eerie rustles, piercing chimes and cataclysmic outbursts from the xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, tubular bells, wood blocks, guiros, claves, slit and bass drums, suspended and clash cymbals, hi-hat, tam-tam and gong, supplemented by a ‘metal tube’ which is struck with a hammer ‘large enough to make the maximum dynamic (ffff)’!  But the various voices were skilfully entwined into an evolving whole, as Mena carefully balanced the starkly juxtaposed sound-worlds, drawing from the BBC Philharmonic both the luminous frailty and crushing brutality of the score.

Again, standards of ensemble and solo playing were high.  The string sound was at times tender then vociferous, while Jennifer Hutchinson’s twittering, stratospheric piccolo interjections were cool and piercing.  Some incisive brass playing also impressed: the trumpets were laser-sharp while horn roars were fierce but expressive and complemented by thunderous tuba interjections from Christopher Evans and Ryan Breen.

Building stealthily from the low, tentative rumbles of the opening, Mena conjured the sense of journeying through strange worlds; the climax was disturbing and juddering, and an insistent unease was sustained to the last, as an unexpected, single trumpet note drew the work to a disquieting close.  If we had confronted the Last Judgement, then the experience was at once terrifying and invigorating.

The concert also saw French pianist Alexandre Tharaud make his Proms concerto debut in an athletic performance of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, which was composed in 1931 for the Viennese pianist Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right arm in WWI.  Given that Ravel declared that ‘[i]n a work of this kind it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands’, the challenges for the soloist are considerable and the effort of negotiating the virtuosic writing quite literally lifted Tharaud from the piano stool at times.

Like both the Birtwistle we had just heard and the Mahler to come, the concerto opens in the dark depths of the orchestra – more fine playing from the double basses and contrabassoon (Bill Anderson) – but Mena, matching the animation of his soloist, moved seductively from the shadows into the light, coaxing a bluesy brightness from the orchestra during the jazzy episodes, the syncopated rhythms propelling the music forward through the five contrasting but continuous sections.  Even in the unsympathetic acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, Tharaud was able to give clarity to the dense textures, and the melodic lines – most frequently articulated by the thumb – were elegantly sustained, while the solo cadenza which brings the work to a close was theatrical and bold.

The mood of tenderness and regret which Tharaud had brought to the more lyrical passages found voice again in a beautiful encore, Scriabin’s Prelude for the Left Hand Op.9 No.1.

Claire Seymour

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