wed 17/07/2024

Prom 5, Power, BBC Philharmonic, Mena review - detail and breadth | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 5, Power, BBC Philharmonic, Mena review - detail and breadth

Prom 5, Power, BBC Philharmonic, Mena review - detail and breadth

Multi-faceted MacMillan Viola Concerto, while less is more in Bruckner

Lawrence Power digs deep in MacMillan's Viola ConcertoBoth images BBC/Chris Christodoulou

I had anticipated a sweltering evening at the Albert Hall. Sadly, though, the heatwave prevented me from even getting there – buckled rails or some similar problem led to the cancellation of my train. So this review is of the Radio 3 broadcast, heard on headphones in the comfort and relative cool of my back garden.

The BBC is making an excellent job of transmitting from the Albert Hall. The sound is bright and lifelike, much closer and clearer than you’d ever hear in the audience. What’s missing is the atmosphere. Presenter Hannah French gave a good sense of what it was like, but it is not the same as being there.

The BBC Philharmonic made their first appearance this season, with Juanjo Mena, their Chief Conductor up to 2018 (pictured below). Mena gives the impression of a diligent but passionate student of every composer he conducts. Details come through that you might miss from other conductors, and he has a fine sense for the subtle shadings between different orchestral textures. But he never gets bogged down in these details, and always has a clear sense of the bigger picture. Those two qualities come through best when delicate, chamber-like textures gradually expand into broad climaxes, an effect we heard from all three composers on this programme. Juanjoa Mena at the PromsWebern’s large-scale and highly Romantic orchestration of the Ricercar a 6 from Bach’s Musical Offering tours the sections of the orchestra before bringing them together in unusual but satisfying combinations. Mena never seemed constricted by the music’s Baroque origins, instead playing out the broad phrases, supported by Webern’s broad, consonant sonorities. Sudden tempo shifts spoke of excessive intervention, although it was not clear if arranger or conductor was to blame. But Webern is definitely to blame for the over-opulent coda, and Mena made no effort to reduce it down to a level of good taste.

Soloist Lawrence Power presented James MacMillan’s Viola Concerto in a performance that was described as the work’s Proms premiere. Not a particularly significant milestone, it would seem, but the Proms has been very important in MacMillan’s career, going back to the premiere of his The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. The concerto was written in 2012, and Power has recently made a commercial recording, so perhaps it is on its way into the repertory. The music grows out of songful lines for the viola. MacMillan is particularly good at finding a range of different personalities for the instrument. He employs a large orchestra, but most of the solo viola lines are supported just by strings, or even just by the first desks. The percussion and brass come into play for the orchestral tuttis, which again pass through a wide of moods and atmospheres.

The slow movement is particularly effective, and here MacMillan makes good use of Power’s rich, clean tone in the lower register. The finale is less promising at the start, fast-running figures in the woodwinds interrupted by slapstick episodes from the brass. But mid-way through, it drops down to a whisper, as the viola interacts with various groups in the orchestra. From here, the work builds to a huge climax, like some Baroque passacaglia. This is where Juanjo Mena is in his element, and the ending of the concerto was given a spectacular reading.

Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony is a calling card for the conductor. He has performed it with this orchestra before at the Proms, and they have recently made a recording (on Chandos). This performance demonstrated just how close he is to this music. In the first movement, every woodwind or brass interjection had a slightly different shading of accent or nuance. A lot of the string writing is repetitive, but again, Mena was able to find variety and purpose to all these textures. Tempos were generally fast, apart from in the slow movement, which played out on an epic scale, completely dominating the performance. The orchestral playing was good throughout the evening, although the brass were beginning to lose their precision by the scherzo. The finale can be presented on an epic scale, but Mena opted instead from sprightly tempos and bright textures. That played well, especially with Mena’s ability to grow climaxes out of quiet passages, an effect that occurs many times in the outer movements, and that brought suitable gravitas to the coda, without shaking the rafters.  


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