Concert: BBC Philharmonic/Mena - Janacek, Ravel and Stravinsky

Janacek: Sinfonietta
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major (Louis Lortie, piano)
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps or Весна священная

 Bridgewater Hall, Manchester - 9 May 2013

A virile collection of 20th Century offerings from Mena and the BBC Philharmonic rounding off a cycle of early Stravinsky ballets in the month of the hundredth anniversary of his most notorious work.  The concert was one for families and students so a higher proportion of youngsters in the audience but still very sad to see whole blocks of empty seats at the Bridgewater Hall.  Manchester has three great orchestras at the moment - each lead by strong and charismatic chief conductors.  We should shout about their successes from the roof tops.  The BBC Philharmonic have just returned from a tour of Japan where all the concerts were sell-outs.  Their story - this was no ordinary return - is told here on Radio 4  and here on a lovely blog by Lynne Rickards and here on Tumblr 

I'm told one should listen to Janacek with an ear towards speech rhythms and that's what I tried to do at this concert to break down the wall that seems to persist between me and Janacek's orchestral music.  All the reframing in the world couldn't really distract me from the view that if this was inspired by speech rhythms it was the repetition and interuption of drunks in a pub, not eloquent Czech poetry.

I have to say the clout of the visceral elements in the music was telling - how could it not be, but none of the slower quieter moments as exquisitely shaped by Mena as they were really telling.

I last saw Louis Lortie at the Proms in 2001 playing the Prokofiev First Concerto - he delivered a suave and powerful reading.  On this occasion his languorous gesture and extravagant demeanour belied his complete mastery.  He seemed to have all the time in the world as he caresses, cajole and tickle his way through the sexy outer movements. But in the slow movement his straightforward, delicate touch brought out just the nostalgia Ravel was seeking to invoke and the tremendously concentrated woodwind took us all away to a dream world of a child's piano practice.  How painful the thought piano practice must have been for the grieving Ravel to invoke this music in memory of his mother.

Mena has had some very good soloists in his time with the BBC Philharmonic - Gabetta, Bliss, Mouriz, Renaud Capucon and Lortie.  These are all class acts - I hope this continues into next season. Not that we know what next season holds yet - sadly the BBC Philharmonic Concert Diary hasn't even been updated with their Prom dates.

And so to the meat of the business.  The Rite of Spring is, somewhat surprisingly, a bit of a concert warhorse: its been played regularly at the Proms 47 times by orchestras (1 by two pianos) since 1947.  It has been a yearly asset in several decades.  And so many commentators have asked this year "has it lost it's capacity to shock?" - not on this reading is hasn't.  Mena's control was interesting - whip crack accurate in the loud ensemble passages but allowing the wind soloists to shape their phrases with great effect.  I don't think I've heard a wind section deal with Stravinsky's writing with the same expertise and expression anywhere in a hall or on a recording.  And the voices were distinct throughout.  I have eulogised the BBC Phil brass before but they put in one hell of a shift in this piece - they were refined and thoughtful at times and at other times they were terrifyingly, acutely menacing and powerful. All sections of the orchestra showed off just how well they can play and Mena's reading - which he danced though across the cross rhythms and complex patterns - was easy to describe in one word: B R U T A L

It was exhilarating and ever so unnerving to get caught up in what is ritualised murder, savage (as in raging) expression and most of all a turning point in that Fin de siècle love of the exotic.  One can almost imagine Stravinsky and Diaghilev saying "if they want the primitive we should give it to them good and hard."  Mena's reading is one to savour but not I think to dwell on too long - it really did leave one feeling that as witnesses we should have stopped them.  To that extent it harbours the same bridge to the congregation as the St Matthew Passion.  That may sound fanciful, but, to the extent this terrible music has prospered in the last 100 years beyond any one's reckoning, I think such analogies are worth considering.

Does it still shock? I think it does.  Three students, who cooed after the Ravel, left after the first part of the Rite - whilst the echo of Mena's sick-making, inertia-collapsing, brick wall of a last chord still hung in the air. The shouts at the end were fulsome and I suspect involuntary - relief perhaps or the kind of blood lust? It was a portrait of the ritualised killing of a dancer - it might as well have been an exhausted bull, a gladiator's victim or knifed loser in an East end pub brawl and we cheered.

You can listen to it here for a few more days

Do try it. As I lay in bed that night trying to sleep wisps of the woodwind phrases came to mind - I was restless and nervous - I think you will be too.


Popular Posts