Prom 5: The sibilant concert

Observers of the Manchester music scene have known for some time that the BBC Philharmonic has harboured some of the finest brass players around and their blended tone - nurtured by Noseda and previous chief conductors they have power and subtlety.  I have blogged before about the splendid things that their new principle conductor, Juanjo Mena has been doing with this orchestra.  In this Prom we had pieces by Richard Strauss, Kaija Saariaho and Jean Sibelius 
In Also Sprach Zarathustra Mena managed - almost against the odds - to show the strings of the BBC Phil could match their brass any day of the week. The slow, two and three fugue “Von der Wissenschaft/Of Science” was ravishing and built with an unerring motor drive but also the most luxuriant tone.  Mena long armed gestures cleave the air with tremendous sweep - he’s a big man but his movement is balletic and his beat clear.  His long baton went flying in the build up to the Round dance and he moved to moulding the final quarter of the work with his bare hands - or should that be bear hands?

It was a fine reading - nothing startlingly original but full of rich deep sonorities, lush lines and clean entries.
Next came Anne Schwanewilms singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs - the soprano entered in a blaze of fiery red and a jacket of similar hue.  I was sat in the choir and could hardly hear most of her performance though i think there were problems from the off. The first song she stood stiffly but loosened up as the pieces progressed after losing the jacket she was wearing.  She conferred with Mena at one point and thereafter he was more attentive to cuing both singer and orchestra.  She was also coughing between movements on a very hot and humid night: in the RAH the air conditioning works with gusts of cold air - not I imagine good for the voice box. Only in the last song could we hear her at all.  Radio will have sorted that out so I will listen to the performance again before commenting (see below).   These are dramatic pieces filled with expectation from audiences who hear them constructed in the safe confines of the studio which may be hard to realise.  I heard them years ago in Sheffield and wondered if it was possible at all to get them right in that difficult acoustic - the RAH falls into that category too, plus it was very warm and very humid.
What I can say was that the BBC Philharmonic playing was ravishing in these songs - concentrated, quiet but full toned and very sensitive.
After the interval came Saariaho’s Laterna magica (2008) getting its UK premiere.  It is a fascinating piece which plays with rhythm and perception in the way of the first magic lanterns which were hand-cranked giving the illusion of movement from the perception fo fast moving stills.  Saariaho added light and dark, accentuated rhythm and a human noises and whispers to the mix.  A 20-odd minute odyssey rhapsodic in nature but very atmospheric and at times unnerving.  Its a work where the coiled up energy dissipates in turns.  Like a foggy night time scene - but the noises of the night linger and are magnified in the clear air, some of it was downright spooky. Mena showed a gracious ear to the nuances AND pressed the composer into the limelight for applause.
Finally, a symphony. Sibelius Symphony No 7 is not perhaps a work we would associate with a Spanish conductor but, oh my, it does fit him well.  And the tone of the BBC Phil was richer, the episodes came more slowly and to greater effect and Mena was at his most jovial in the faster music.  I heard a radio relay of him conducting Night ride and Sunrise earlier this year and his way with Sibelius is not what I would call earthy but nor does he inflect it in a Bernstein like, "city dwellers impression of the frozen north". It is is never perfunctory: but I did ache fro a few of the notes to linger just a little longer.  But that is my preference: overall it was a fine uncluttered performance.  It was a fitting end to a long night of works demanding exposure by one part of the orchestra or another: bold, rich and 
Correction: I said above that radio would sort out Anne Schwanewilms singing - far from it - it demonstrated there were HUGE problems for the singer.  We couldn’t hear her in the Choir and from the radio recording we have much to be grateful for - I suspect most of the RAH couldn’t hear her. She was in real trouble, though its worth noting she was given tumultuous applause.  The orchestra were indeed a delight, but with gulped words, sliding, uncertain note values and an octave transposition downward when the notes could not be reached in the final song, the words “car crash” come to mind.  


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