Mena Sustains Emotional Tension in Walton’s First Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar, Sibelius, Walton: Jennifer Pike (piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Juanjo Mena (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 9.10.2016. (MC)

Elgar: Concert overture In the South (Alassio)

Sibelius: Violin Concerto

Walton: Symphony No. 1

Hailing from the Basque Country, chief conductor Juanjo Mena has already demonstrated his prowess in conducting large scale symphonic music in the Austro/German tradition notably Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler. Adept too is his handling of English music including in recent seasons memorable performances of Elgar symphonies at the Bridgewater.

British composers are positioned high in the BBC Philharmonic programming this season with seven established works plus a première from Mark Simpson, a commission by the orchestra. Tonight’s concert titled ‘Melody and Rhythm’ contained a pair of celebrated works from the pens of Elgar and Walton together with Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, a perennial favourite in the concert hall.

Elgar’s In the South was written in the wake of significant toil completing his large scale oratorio The Apostles. With his wife Alice, Elgar holidayed in Alassio on the Italian Riviera and in the gloriously sunny weather his imagination was fired. He wrote swiftly and orchestrated the work on his return to Malvern. Sounding more of a symphonic poem than a concert overture Mena and his players revelled in the succulent orchestral textures so distinctively Elgarian. Notable were the lovely flow of languorous string writing interspersed with glorious passages from viola Steven Burnard and the thrilling episodes of grandeur. Sadly a sudden noise in the audience spoilt the magic for a time.

I’ve lost count of the number of disappointing performances of the Sibelius Violin Concerto that I’ve sat through. That’s why Nikolaj Znaider with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding last year at the Semperoper, Dresden giving a passion fuelled performance of a special type that comes around all too infrequently, will stay long in the memory. Last night’s soloist Jennifer Pike, who trained down the road from the Bridgewater Hall at Chetham’s School of Music, I last saw perform in recital shortly after winning the 2002 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. Pike gave a satisfactory performance in this Sibelius masterwork but it never caught fire. The standard of technical excellence displayed by Pike was high, natural and unforced but my reservations are with the emotional side which felt curiously detached. Overall there was a slight sense of icy Nordic chill and a modicum of mystery created while the Adagio despite its tranquil beauty lacked the captivating emotional quality of the finest interpretations. Commendable were the efforts of Mena and his Philharmonic players, especially the heartfelt playing in the Adagio that felt assured and focused and I was really struck by the contribution of the five horns. Following the audience applause I guessed we might get the almost obligatory Bach encore – and Pike didn’t disappoint.

The main work of the evening Walton’s Symphony No. 1 was a treat well worth the distance I travelled. With the score Walton announced his presence with remarkable energy and emotion, that despite painstaking efforts in completing the work, seemed to come deep from within his being. Often ferocious and uncompromising the influence of Sibelius in the construction of its themes is palpable. It’s a while since I heard this symphony performed in concert and until the work commenced in earnest I’d almost forgotten how much of an impact it can make. Mena developed and held the tension in the opening movement at an almost unbearable level, assuredly keeping the players together in this thunderous and near brutal flood of passion. In the spiky and peppery outbursts of the Scherzo marked ‘with malice’ Mena was masterly at pulling all the sections of the orchestra together. The stark contrast provided by the Andante – reflective with a conspicuous undertow of melancholyprobably reflects the composer’s emotional pain of being jilted by a mistress. Some of the woodwind figures felt shrouded in an icy chill which added to the nervous tension. With total involvement Mena once again managed to stringently sustain the emotional tension to its utmost. The triumphant mood of the Finale is one of the most memorable and cathartic episodes in British music evocative of the magnificent scene of a Royal Navy fleet review at Spithead in the inter-war years. Predictably the shattering climax drew loud cheers from the delighted audience.

Michael Cookson

This concert was being recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast.

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