Exhilarating and Transparent Choral Symphony from BBC Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: John Daszak (tenor), Alastair Miles (baritone), Raquel Lojendio (soprano), Clara Mouriz (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Chorus, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Juanjo Mena (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, Saturday 29th September 2014 (MC)

Juanjo Mena, photo Chris Christodoulou
Juanjo Mena, photo Chris Christodoulou

Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B flat major
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, ‘Choral’


 In addition to its traditional Radio 3 slots the BBC Philharmonic is certainly extending its reach into fresh territory. Most notably in the last few weeks there have been successful collaborations with British electronic group Clean Bandit for a live Radio 1 transmission and also with eighties pop idol Boy George for ‘Sounds of the 80s’ on Radio 2. Coming up on the 1st October is a partnership with Jarvis Cocker presenting a live edition of ‘Wireless Nights’ discovering tales of the nocturnal on Radio 4 and a few days later on the 3rd October it joins John Grant the American singer-songwriter on BBC Radio 6 Music. For all these activities to work the orchestra’s reputation has to be one of excellence and this all-Beethoven concert at the Bridgewater Hall certainly demonstrated its rock solid foundation serving as a harbinger of the marvellous concerts to come this season.

 After having rather overdosed on Beethoven symphonies over the last few seasons it was the lure of the Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’, always a special event a concert programme, that drew me to this concert. Maestro Mena explained in a pre-concert talk how in preparation for a performance, although he will listen to available recordings, when studying the score he will always return to the composer’s intentions. For the performance of the Beethoven ‘Choral’ Symphony there were two changes to the originally advertised line up. Soloist Andrew Kennedy was replaced by John Daszak and at very short notice Raquel Lojendio took the place of Rebecca Evans.

 The opening work Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 hit the spot immediately. Using a fairly modest amount of strings (less than 40) and careful use of vibrato Mena’s taut interpretation felt fresh and inspiring containing a sense of lifting away the clouds of everyday burdens. Especially memorable was the first movement with the opening Adagio section containing an elusive, rather searching feel. The main section Allegro Vivace felt increasingly forthright with Mena maintaining a crisp and nimble feel to the bolder textures.

 After the interval the main work of the evening the performance of Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’ under Mena’s baton was as exhilarating as I have heard for some time. In the manner that Claudio Abbado altered the sound of the Berliner Philharmoniker from the days of his predecessor Herbert von Karajan likewise there was little surplus weight to the Philharmonic’s playing. Rather than emanating from below in the low strings Mena required an overall sound which was lighter more transparent than I remember hearing from this orchestra. Who could fail to admire the controlled power of the opening movement and the sense of freedom in the highly rhythmic, quasi-Scherzo. Lyrical and warmly insouciant the third movement flowed perceptively, evoking a river-bank scene on a glorious summer’s day and how faultlessly the line of five horns played. One of the glories of romantic music, Beethoven’s finale opened with an impressive sense of impending menace. After the fugato the playing became highly charged with plenty of bite and intensity; almost overpowering. Mena’s quartet of soloists, not exactly overworked by Beethoven, had to do well and they did, incisive and committed. Assisted by punchy singing from the excellent CBSO chorus over a hundred strong, with the weight of women’s voices slightly overpowering the men’s, the vocal contributions were admirable. I’ve lost count of the number of orchestral concerts I attend where the brass section play too loudly, spoiling the sound it produces but not so with the Philharmonic who played beautifully all evening and still delivered real impact. The Bridgwater audience cheered, some stood, in appreciation of a performance that will stay long in the memory.

 Michael Cookson