sat 13/07/2024

BBCPO, Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - Mahler's Third lovingly realised | reviews, news & interviews

BBCPO, Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - Mahler's Third lovingly realised

BBCPO, Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - Mahler's Third lovingly realised

Chief conductor puts a characteristic stamp on opener of his final season

Juanjo Mena - bookending his tenure with MahlerMichal Nowak

Juanjo Mena memorably began his tenure as chief conductor at the BBC Philharmonic with a Mahler symphony (the Second), and chose to enter his seventh and last season with them at the Bridgewater Hall with the Third. It was a testimonial to an era at the end of which he leaves with the orchestra in at least as good shape as he found them, and in some ways better still.

His time has included wide-ranging repertoire, and apart from a Fifth at the Proms, I believe this was the only other Mahler symphony performance he’s directed since that September day in 2011. But it’s been worth waiting for, and for some of the orchestra will have been a re-visit to a score they navigated under the expert hands of Vassily Sinaisky in the great Manchester Mahler season of 2010.

Is it ever possible to give the six-movement colossus a sense of symphonic shape and forward momentum? I think Sinaisky did as much as anyone could back then, and if the impression was not quite so pronounced this time, it was because individual moments and passing beauties were so lovingly realized. You can’t really have it both ways, and Mena is definitely a man for the beauty of the passing moment – but in the context of ensemble playing that was disciplined and precise. His presentation of the first three movements produced spontaneous applause each time, breaking the spell in one sense but showing how much the audience was enjoying the journey with him.BBC Philharmonic in Bridgewater HallThe first movement, beginning with mystery in its introductory bars, showed that Mena and the orchestra have mastered the art of playing the lightest and weightiest textures each with the delicacy, or splendour, the Bridgewater Hall acoustic requires. There were explosive impacts and also dancing springiness in the rhythms, and everything built to a huge, expertly poised climax.

The minuet second movement allowed us to appreciate another aspect of the Mena magic: the delicious charm of a balmy serenade (mixed, as it has to be, with scary outbursts of near-hysteria). The strings, under guest leader Zoe Beyers, were glowing in these textures.

Beyers’ violin solos were among many riveting individual contributions, as were those from principal trombone and trumpet in the third movement (and the woodwind principals elsewhere), but if there was a brief period of uncertainty it came in the matter of balancing off-stage trumpet and on-stage horns here.

Karen Cargill Karen Cargill (pictured right) sang the lines from Nietzsche glowingly in the fourth movement (it was she who uttered them in the Sinaisky performance, too), with the orchestral backcloth firm enough to be more an affirmation than a question, and the women’s voices of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, allied with the boy and girl choristers of Gloucester Cathedral, brought lightness, accuracy and tonal richness to their singing of the words from Arnim and Brentano’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn which give the symphony its “message” (insofar as there is one): heavenly joy knows no end.

The last movement brought more glories yet. The Philharmonic cello section, led by Peter Dixon, is known for its nobility and power, and now we heard its sweetness in mezza voce and cantabile – and the entire string forces, making use (as Mena likes them to) of their point-of-bow, played gorgeously. The tiniest pianissimo of the whole performance came in this section, and it grew from that to its mightiest climax – controlled, but spine-tingling in its crescendo – in the final bars.

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