Concert: Korngold & de Falla - BIG music

Readers of this blog will know I'm a big fan of Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic. I said to myself that I would go hear them more often in the flesh this year. The trip to Manchester was a little more precarious this time with thick snow on the ground and, since I'd previously heard only one of the works on the programme I was taking a punt in that respect too.  I was eager to hear Mena conduct music of his countrymen. To add to the novelty I was listening completely blind since there were no programmes to be had.

Oliver Knussen's Flourish with Fireworks (1988 rev 1993) is a short but magnificent blaze of orchestral glory - BBC orchestras do this kind of music so well and play these complex little scores as if they were mere bagatelles.  No doubt there's more challenging modern music for them to play but this started proceedings with a very appropriate loud, multi-coloured orchestral bang.

Renaud Capuçon was soloist in the Korngold Violin Concerto - Capuçon is a young man of great élan and poise.  This concerto has been recorded by many greats but this was my first encounter in the concerto hall and I was captivated both by the detailed inflections in Capuçon's playing and the relatively simplicity of the orchestral writing.  Those big Hollywood tunes on which the score was based sounded well in the Hall and pleasingly the violin tone wasn't lost against them.  Capuçon, in tails, was unflappable and even resilient to the German gentleman who bellowed out and lead some small applause between movements.  The German was, I dare say, suffering from rampant over enthusiasm.  Those of us sitting nearer to him could also enjoy some swooning vocalisations at the end of sweet phrases and quiet enchantments in the slow movement.  He and his companion when they weren't listening compared notes by chatting: I moved for the second half.  But the German was right to heap applause on the soloist after he and Mena brought the skittish finale out in an array of orchestral and solo colour.  It broke free of its material and brought a new balance to the concerto to my ears.  It was a quick, pointed reading which came off splendidly - Mena bringing out its varied rhythmic units with some pizzazz. Its a work of bold gestures but behind that there is some fantastic scoring especially in the strings and the kind of elegance we could have wished Korngold had taught Mahler!

I heard Clara Mouriz in a BBC lunchtime concert late last year and her voice got me - there's a simple test I put to voices - do they have that hair-raising quality?  Mouriz does - a imposing full bloodied open voice which rings out but also the most divine intimate voice full of subtle tones, wide emotional range and winning smiles.  In the Poema en forma de canciones by Turina - the vocal fireworks come in the last song - where Mouriz matched the orchestra well and earlier her singing was inviting, dramatic and involved.  She has a tremendous talent I think and it will work in the epic choral showpieces, the opera house and the recital room. 

Mouriz has recorded this music with Mena and a link is at the bottom of the page.

Manuel de Falla's Three Cornered Hat ballet involved every department of the BBC Philharmonic including a battery of percussion, harp, piano, celesta and the talents of Mouriz. Ashamedly I have to admit that I hadn't heard it before - it was one of a number of pieces by Spanish composers which lie some way down my "must listen" list - securely languishing since I'd run across some dull works by Albeniz....

How wrong I was to disregard it.  Its a tremendous piece in the hands of Maestro Mena owing something to Ravel and Debussy but I suspect as much to Rimsky Korsakov and Richard Strauss too.  The story need not detain us I suspect - its all in characterful writing of the highest order.  Mouriz contributed with a delicate cuckoo and a hall filling declamation - but not before the orchestra bouyed the opening section with voice and spot-on flamenco clapping.  All the hallmarks of Spain were there - and most notably Mena brought out a whole host of dance rhythms impeccably shaped by his baton and his feet moving on his podium as though only missing a dance partner.  The orchestra - who have recorded this piece with him - responded with an ease in this genre which I think would defeat many other orchestras - the acuity was breathtaking in the frantic paroxysms of the finale.  The woodwind especially bring a smokey insouciance to their phrasing at times of languor but are needle sharp when the pace picks up.  Such a good band in this repertoire that I will rush to the CD on completing this review.

This is what orchestral concerts should be all about - fantastic voyages of discovery -even in familiar works - and not the same old war horses done the same old ways.  But here's the rub, the hall wasn't full.  Manchester is a city full of students, musicians of great talent in advanced learning, but the hall was too bare and those who were there were, largely, foreigners and older people (60+).  I doubt that all of this was down to the snow.  Maybe the folk of Manchester don't pick up on the excellence in their midst.  My experiences in London halls suggests this music making is special in its scope, skill and rapport. Long may it prosper - and I hope some readers will be moved to find it on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday February 3rd at 14:00 and for the week following that on the BBC website.

PS (30.1.13)

The CDs referred to above are here:

Download at the Classical Shop

Download at the Classical Shop


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