Bruckner and Bach - Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 16 November 2012

 Bruckner and Bach - Bridgewater Hall, 16 November 2012

I readied myself for listening to this concert on the radio as I was working in London but the more I thought about it the more I was lured into the idea of seeing it live.  So a change of plans and a long journey later, I sat in the Choir Stalls awaiting the appearance of the BBC Philharmonic with conductor Juanjo Mena. The pieces were Bach’s Cantata No. 147 and Bruckner’s Symphony No 9.

The Cantata ‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben’ is joyful and elegant, especially in the hands of Mena, his precise but stylish soloists (Julia Doyle, Robin Blaze, Nicholas Mulroy and Roderick Williams - all very fine singers) and the Manchester Chamber Choir.  I’d last heard this choir in the Royal Albert Hall - they were part of the vocal compliment used in the premiere of James MacMillan’s Credo under Mena - which I reviewed here. They are a fresh and dynamic group.  The orchestral forces were slight - but instruments, choir and soloists alike delivered Mena’s jaunty Bach style without a hint of undue loftiness.  This is down to earth but not rustic Bach and it has such a swing to it in the faster parts, the recits. and slower music was delivered with a specially devotional purity but again without mannerism. I enjoyed it a lot.

The Bruckner which followed was I think the orchestra’s first outing with Mena in the piece.  I heard this as a reading in the process of being made into something very special indeed - fantastic as it was delivered but with potential to be ground breaking.  The Proms Bruckner 6 was their third outing of the piece in concert and it showed.  This reading had a few edges which will be even more finely hewn next time.  At the crucial moments though the orchestra played out of their skins - especially the strings - and achieved the kind of overwhelming encounter that was moving in and of itself.  So often strings and woodwind get lost amongst the great brass chords in Bruckner but not here.  I think the Bridgewater Hall’s lack of reverberation helped to.  And the great waves of sound - heavy swells on which woodwind ride, deep currents against which brass swimming and the faintest or tremolos produce eddies about which key changes of tdal consequence are born - these were all beautifully done.  The woodwind did - as they did in the Sixth symphony - a sterling job, they were characterful, the drivers of musical change: Bruckner by this stage knew how their voices move the music on. Most importantly the final section of the last movement (Adagio) was impeccably realised and the brass who had been mighty and expansive throughout, delivered the most personal, intimate and refined Amen that Bruckner ever wrote.

Mena - like his mentor Celibadache - has no qualms about slowing Bruckner down to a point where the very notes seem to be in danger of falling apart: its breathtaking when it goes well and it did.  But the orchestra will be more accustomed to these when they play it next time and at that stage we will feel the full glory of what is already a monumental reading, a colossal feat of orchestral playing and a fantastic symphonic journey over some of the roughest terrain an orchestra can encounter.

This orchestra and this conductor will make a fine job of this work in the spacious acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall and I hope that it will be on their to do list for 2013. The orchestra are showing - with symphonies 6 and 7 under their belt already - that they are more specially equipped to deliver this music than any other I know.


The Post Concert was for the Manchester Chamber Choir (@McrChamberChoir) alone.  

One piece attributed to Bach:  Ich lasse dich nicht Anh.159, 

Bruckner: Os Justi, and; 

definitely by Bach: Singest dem Herrn neues Lied BWV225.

The Choir have a great stage presence and delivered all three with enthusiasm and skill that same down to earth quality, modest and yet very appealing I'd heard in the Cantata.  They all have a wonderful attitude - singing for us not at us!

Two after thoughts on Bruckner 9:

Sir Simon Rattle has recently delivered a credible argument that we have enough knowledge now to finish this symphony and his recording on EMI (which I haven’t heard) and his performance with the BPO in their Digital Concert Hall (which I have) have put me in a different place regarding this adagio.  Yes, it will serve as an end, but it is not the last word and it is certainly not the dying act of a enfeebled old man - the Finale is cut from the same wild dynamic and bold cloth as teh first movement and I think that’s how I see Bruckner now.
BBC Philharmonic and Bridgewater Hall do a great deal to promote their concerts but the Hall was, I guess, two thirds full - but I can’t say how many of these were subscribers who had decided to stay at home when they saw Anton Bruckner’s name on the programme.  It was particularly sad to see that most of the audience were older people. I guess Bruckner doesn’t play well to the instant gratification culture but it would be nice to see young people trying these great symphonies - I have no answers about how, but this is a big noise it should be heard well.  next to you go - bring a friend or two!


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