Concert: BBC Phil/Mena - Beethoven, Mozart & Schubert

Beethoven: Music of a Knight's Ballet, WoO1
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto
Schubert: Symphony No 9 in C major, D 944

Julian Bliss (clarinet)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Juanjo Mena

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

15 February 2013

I’m becoming something of a cheer leader for the products of the relationship between the BBC Philharmonic and Juanjo Mena - I make no apologies for it. It’s grand to see how this partnership is now blossoming and results match the very best I’ve heard over the years concert going in the UK.  I took some friends with me - it was their first classical concert: delighted to say it won't be their last.

The programme for those concert was a bundle of classical music - a first half comprising Beethoven’s first music for orchestra (fp -March 6, 1791), the evergreen clarinet concerto by Mozart (fp - October 16, 1791) and the second half Schubert’s Ninth symphony "Great" (fp - possibly 1829 or 21 March 1839).

It's not often that one goes to a concert and the most obscure music on the programme is by Beethoven - his "Musik zu einem Ritterballett" translated variously as music for a knight's ballet or (on wiki) as Music for a ballet on horseback was a commission by Baron Waldstein and the young Beethoven wasn't even credited with the music at the premiere. It's eight movements are profoundly German - 1) Marsch; 2) Deutscher Gesang; 3) Jagdlied; 4) Minnelied; 5) Kriegslied; 6) Trinklied; 7) Deutscher Tanz; and 8) Coda.  Descriptions of old German costumes at the opening night in Bonn coupled with the clumsy stylings of the young composer lead one to think this must have been less an absorbing cultural night out and more a good excuse for a drink. But even geniuses have to start somewhere.

Nonetheless here in this his first work without Opus number - WoO1, we get glimpses of Beethoven's injections of raw talent: his ingenuity working on the very flat form of German songs and especially leaden German dance (Deutsches Tanz) shown by the dynamism of his orchestration: it mostly sweeps along with what would become his customary energy.  There's even, to my ear, a nod or two to the Handelian style which would feature so heavily in some of his last works. Mena led it with a straight face and benign smile as he danced the galumphing final section of the piece.  The lilt Beethoven allows was fully exploited as he coaxed his players into another side of Beethovenian expression.  It was an ear-opener.  We may think the Op 1 piano sonata was backward facing (to Haydn) but  WoO1 is backward facing to the Dark Ages - but a joy to hear in the hands of someone who cares.

From early Beethoven to late Mozart.  Most of the audience would have been concert going for many many more years than the 24 which Julian Bliss has graced the planet.  They would have, I'm sure heard Mozart's Clarinet Concerto many times - it's been tremendously popular as a concert piece for both its jaunty tunes in the outer movements and the gentle sentimental sad song in the slow movement.  It's a challenge I expect for a young soloist faced with so many older, knowing faces - he charmed them almost immediately he walked on stage with a cheerful smile and then plunged into a reading of great maturity, sensitivity and good sense, nothing showy except complete mastery of his instrument (a bassett clarinet in this instance) and confident adherence to one of Mozart's most renown scores.

There are times at concerts where one senses that the soloist has the audience completely caught up in the music - rapt attention, utter silence and stillness pervades.  In an ex-industrial city like Manchester, on a winter's night, when coughs and colds have been rife all winter - the chances of an audience of mature music lovers achieving complete silence are, to be frank, very low. Old transmissions from the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in the 1960s had the background eruptions of a TB ward.  Coughs ring round especially as the audience gets bored, but not during the slow movement of this concerto.  And all credit to Bliss for his most exquisite, soft tones, darken by his choice of instrument.  It was a very special reading indeed - he had them in the palm of his hand. Mena followed suit and magic settled the arguments about whether one so young could get to the soul of this music and the Manchester audience.

Orchestra and conductor are mean Mozartian's with a lithe flexibility which just bowls the music along. Mena's control of the strings is worth observing in seemingly familiar music like this - he wrings out extra detail, drawing out the panache of Mozart's writing in this case .  His attention to the second violins added so much vigour to the accompaniment. And his shaping of the low string contributions darkened the atmosphere at times to bring this out a familiar sinister under-tone to Mozart's writing which has grown sentimental accretions over the years.

Bliss was meet with a very warm appreciation from audience and orchestra alike.  The genial young man appeared slightly embarrassed as Mena let him take his bows alone. Fine playing on all sides, no fireworks or mannerism and so at no stage did this warhorse seem weary.

After the interval the string section doubled in size and the brass and woodwind were augmented for Schubert's Great C Major symphony. It's debatable whether Schubert ever heard this and such is the model of his tragically romantic life that it suits us to frame it as the masterpiece he left to us unaware of it's profound greatness.

I have to say as a relative latecomer to Schubert's symphonies these works often sound to me less sophisticated than Beethoven and there were times when during this symphony I thought back to the lumbering gait of the Ritter ballet and felt even the earliest Beethoven was more refined and attractive than some of this symphony.  But of course the point with Schubert so often is not his material but what he does with it over the longer run.

Mena has a very precise way with this orchestra - in pizzacato passages in the Beethoven and fast passages in the Schubert we heard just how disciplined they are.  I was recounting for friends how concerts in Sheffield used to be back years ago when standards were much less good than they are now.  The kind of relentless pressure on all sections of the orchestra would have lead to some real tests for latter day players and too often they would have been found wanting.  Not so in today.  Under Lucy Gould's guest leadership the violins slaved away on this unforgiving score.  There must be times when those players feel the music isn't going anywhere - the nature of this music seems to me to be akin to Schumann's Second Symphony, that is bordering on the wrong side of manic.  Yet all those notes were delivered with aplomb, verve and style.

This reading was brisk but not brusque - carrying over from the Mozart a cultured interest in string balance with a tendency to let the full orchestra ring out at all the pinnacles encountered on the way to the summit of this work.   It held together even when Schubert's writing tests both player and listener.  In the second movement which fills with stress and strain until it can't take any more, the silence and quiet rhapsody thereafter, were fill the kind of alarms that sound really modern.  The woodwind were models of measured Schubertian decorum and the brass kept bound to the supporting role until those moments where they burst out. Overall the progress of the work was triumphant - a peak in the classical genre I think - not quite as Romantic as Beethoven had already achieved,

The audience were as enthusiatic as I have seen any at BWH about this performance. For the older patrons it was a concert which may have been more nostalgic than most. The performances were eloquent and beautifully played.  Great night.


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