thu 18/07/2024

Hough, BBC Philharmonic, Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Hough, BBC Philharmonic, Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Hough, BBC Philharmonic, Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

The Mancunian Way season opens with Hough and Brahms, plus a rarity from Anthony Burgess

Stephen Hough: total mastery© Chris Christodoulou

They did it, and continue to do it, their way. Under the self-confident title of The Mancunian Way, the BBC Philharmonic’s new season aims to celebrate the story of music-making in the city through works, composers and performers with special links to Manchester. There is much to celebrate, not least nowadays the spirit of collaboration between the musical strongholds in the city, where it is entirely possible to carve out a total career from childhood to professional fulfilment.

One such is pianist Stephen Hough, soloist-in-residence for the season, a product of Chetham’s School of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music. He made his debut just down the road with the Hallé when he was 12 years old, 40 years ago.

To open the season, the Phil plucked from obscurity A Manchester Overture by Anthony Burgess (pictured below), whose prolific work as a composer is, of course, overshadowed by his literary achievements. Musically self-taught, he wrote his first symphony when he was 18 years old and an undergraduate at the University of Manchester. He died just 20 years ago, soon after composing this overture, which has never previously had a public airing in the city it was written for.

Mena had the orchestra playing for their lives

The piece offers 10 minutes of uplifting music, filmic in nature with rip-roaring brass, soon followed by sweeping strings. And there are some interesting instrumental combinations, like double harp. Whether or not one can read into it autobiographical elements is anyone’s guess. A robust youth? A maturing period? A final triumph? At any rate, it made for a lively start, even though it is probably destined to remain a rarity.

For the first offering of his residency, Hough chose the First Piano Concerto by Brahms. It is all too easy to forget that this mighty work, so full of energy and yet harbouring the requiem for Schumann in the slow movement, was written when the composer was in his early twenties. It presents a real test of conviction and stamina. Under the watchful eye of conductor Juanjo Mena, Hough showed total mastery. He has a way of playing at dazzling speed whilst appearing to be unhurried. This is a concerto without frills and it suits him. From his first meditative entrance, in contrast to the tragic storming of the orchestra, he plays with spaciousness and yet ferocity. Mena had the orchestra playing for their lives, with strength in every section, and reached a triumphant finale.

By contrast, the symphonic offering was Elgar’s First, which marked a real musical milestone when it was premiered in Manchester by the Hallé under Hans Richter on a foggy December night in 1908, three days before it was first heard in London, which is the way Mancunians like it.

Mena embraced the scale of the work from the first appearance of that oh-so-familiar “motto theme” to the ear-shattering climax in the finale. Again, he had the BBC Phil playing at the top of their considerable powers. And yet, perhaps the most moving and satisfying music-making was in the tenderness and lyricism of the Adagio.

Pride in The Mancunian Way is refreshing. Some of us are long enough in the tooth to recall the days when some institutions were only too keen to cast off the regional label, when the Manchester Guardian dropped the city from its masthead and the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra rechristened itself the BBC Philharmonic. Happy days!

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