Prom 18 - BBC Philharmonic/Mena - Birtwistle, Ravel, Scriabin and Mahler

I attended Prom 18 with a guilty heart having missed a Mena Prom for the first time in three years. My Elgar allergy putting me off Prom 10 (but thoughts will be recorded here).  Mena is moving up the orchestral ladder and went from this appearance to conducting at Tanglewood where he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a programme of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in a concert following the death of Rafael Frubeck de Burgos.  This concert showed the fizz that Mena can inject into new music, the new lights in the obscure and the sensibility he brings to the familiar.  We are - in truth very lucky to hear so much of his work with the BBC Philharmonic on the radio - and for those of us lucky enough, to see it too in Manchester.

It was good to see this fine orchestra tackling Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Night's Black Bird with vigour, delicacy and zeal.  In truth it was probably the best piece piece on the programme and has endless fascinating half-lights, hints at the familiar and returning ideas.  The orchestra and this conductor have shown great commitment to new music at the Proms over the years.  Night's Black Bird isn't that new of course, it had it's world premiere in 2004 at Lucerne by the Cleveland Orchestra under Welser-Möst. And its subject is timeless - the dis-ease of a night time.  There's a superb nocturnal landscape laid out - at times it's almost pastoral.  But anyone who has sat alone deep in the countryside will know those landscapes that are so picturesque in the light can become disconcerting and alarming.  There's a great deal in the orchestration to savour and the forward momentum is carried by precise and telling use of all the instruments he can muster.  Five percussionists worked hard - and Birtwistle is exacting in his precision too - the score calls for a metal tube, but not any old metal tube - as the footnote says "**piece of scaffold tube c.40cm x 5cm set on a piece of polystyrene and struck with metal hammer large enough to make the maximum dynamic (ffff) ."  The more Birtwistle I hear the more I love the man.

Ravel's Piano Concerto for Left Hand was given with Alexendre Tharaud as soloist.  He is the real deal and his althelticsm paid dividends in this occasion piece which to be honest I've heard many times live and in concert relays and never really warmed to.  But this time it had zeal and zest in both instrumentalist and orchestra and I found myself much more engaged by it's contrasts grandiloquence and sadness.  Ravel is the composer I turn to for sentimental reflection - his music is full of of heartfelt reminiscence.

Tharaud threw himself into the piece - quite literally at times to to get the power behind the glissandi - but he was also a model of Ravel's stillness and concentration in the slow music.  Mena as usual pulled the most out of Ravel's dance rhythms and also let the orchestra sing out without constraint.  I think it's this later quality I've missed in other performances.  Ravel was such a master of the theatrical orchestration that his scores seldom need down playing and yet this was the first time the writing hit me.  Kudos to the BCC Phil brass - what a group they are and to the winds who play Ravel's writing with such character.

Tharaud played the Scriabin Prelude for Left Hand as an encore which had the hall held in rapt silence.  He displayed the same technical eloquence and a great deal of poetic nuance at the end of the piece. I hope to hear much more of this fine pianist.

In Mahler Symphony No 5 we had a treat - though I am losing my enthusiasm for the piece by the year.  I have worshipped at it's altar for too long now.  The reading was brilliant with stacks of nuance and evening out of the passages which have become parodies of themselves as conductors have sought to outdo each other.  But the older I get I wish Bruckner symphonies were longer and Mahler symphonies were shorter.

The piece has been part of the orchestra's repertoire with Mena for a while now and they played with familiar confidence - the horns blazed and the trombones continued to impress as did the style and relaxed phrasing of the woodwind, alert to Mahler's writing but never over-egging it.  And that is where my problem with Mahler 5 is starts to crystallise into something I can talk about.  Ever since Maureen Lipman in Willy Russell's film "Educating Rita" tearfully opened the door to the heroine and said "couldn't you just die for Mahler" the composer's reputation (growing before that to be fair) has been of life and death importance.  And conductors have sought to wring out every nuance, underline it, highlight their cleverness and generally overplay it and in reaction rein in every nuance and somewhere along the way these symphonies have acquired a reputation for greatness which in most cases I'm now beginning to think is underserved and at best very unhelpful.  They can't all be great and they are not.  Whilst there is much that's brilliant in the Fifth there's also some really banal writing and it's overall plan moving from c minor to c major is hardly a model of originality.

So Mena treads a middle path which has bite at times, but not as often or as uniformly deep as others.  It has stacks of lyricism and some beautiful interplay between sections and soloists.  It is a profoundly grounded reading of a good Mahler symphony - which has much to enjoy in it.  There were moments of complete repose too - the silence of the audience was signal they were engrossed.  It remains a crowd pleaser though I'd much rather I heard less of it.

But all of that aside - this was a very good prom and Mena and the BBC Philharmonic continue to set a very high standard in their trips down south in playing and programming.


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