Prom 5: BBC Philharmonic – Juanjo Mena conducts Bruckner & Bach – Lawrence Power plays MacMillan’s Viola Concerto

Bach, orch. Webern
Musical Offering – Ricercar a 6
Sir James MacMillan
Viola Concerto
Symphony No.6 in A

Lawrence Power (viola)

BBC Philharmonic
Juanjo Mena

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 18 July, 2022
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This Prom was to have featured the premiere of Cassandra Miller’s Viola Concerto, but the withdrawal of Omer Meir Wellber presumably necessitated the partial change in the programme. Juanjo Mena took up the reins, albeit still with Lawrence Power in a Viola Concerto. In this case James MacMillan’s work from 2013 proved a satisfactory complement to Bruckner’s Symphony No.6: both works share an outwardly lyrical and melodic profile, but shades of darker harmonies often offset the principal themes to make the emotional trajectory of each rather more complex and nuanced.

MacMillan’s Concerto is an essentially abstract work in the Classical three-movement form of fast (or at least moderate)-slow-fast. Mena conducted the BBC Philharmonic in a balanced and buoyant account, the instruments of the orchestra eloquently communicative with each other and with Power, be that in the ominously recurring (but inconclusive) cadential figure from the outset, the screaming inner voices of the piled-up texture of the first movement’s climax, or the fleet-footed string-laden whirl of the Cinale.

Power played with elegant facility, tending to emphasise the music’s lyrical nature with his bluesy, tender opening passage, a cleanly wistful cantilena for the songful and slightly uneasy slow movement (like Prokofiev or Shostakovich) and the Finale’s dash despatched with great levity and dance-like zeal (Power virtually dancing with the music at times). Although not at all playing over or against the orchestra, his performance often coursed along with a rhapsodic freedom that transcended the regularity of the barlines and binding the otherwise somewhat lurching contrasts in this score. The strange swooping harmonics like the unworldly, veiled calls of a bird in the second movement and the cadenza-like arpeggios of the Finale over the orchestra emerged naturally enough from the flexible control of his interpretation overall. A smoky, wispy haze attended the similar arpeggio figurations of the solo Imitation of the Bells by Johann Paul von Westhoff, given as an encore, somewhat like Casals’s Song of the Birdsor a more ethereal version of Tarrega’s Memories of the Alhambra.

The Concerto had been preceded by a reticent account of Webern’s pointilliste orchestration of the ‘6-part Ricercar’ from Bach’s Musical Offering. Despite the splintering of the contrapuntal lines among different timbres in this arrangement, and the odd portamento or sobbing oboe in performance, Mena drew a clear thread through the piece, mainly on account of the limited contrast of dynamics through the whole which had the effect of dampening the range of those sonorities somewhat.

In the most concise of Bruckner’s mature Symphonies – which Mena and the BBC Philharmonic recorded in 2012 and released recently – rhythmic alacrity was brought out not so much by a determined hammering out of the music’s pulse but rather by their crisp and lucid reading. In fact the first movement’s characteristic rhythm, as quietly announced at the outset, was not even very incisive but somewhat blurred, more like the mysterious, indeterminate tremolos of many of Bruckner’s other symphonic openings. If the second subject was more languid, and the development’s climax could have been more powerful, the steady meter sustained by Mena in this movement and subsequently (without a notable degree of rubato or use of ritardando) instilled an efficient and undeniable momentum of its own.

Clarity of texture, as opposed to massed sound for its own sake, counted for a great deal in making this a satisfying performance of the Symphony nonetheless. The grinding dissonances which result from the suspensions in the first movement’s climax generated quite awesome tension, and crucially the rippling trumpet and horn solos over the glowingly shifting harmonies of its coda were resplendent (too often overlooked by conductors, but not Jochum and the Staatskapelle Dresden, my benchmark for this and the Symphony overall for glorious sound and compelling drive). In the flowing (but not at all hasty) Adagio the oboe was expressively mournful and the strings warm. In the third movement it was the majestic horns (if a little brashly uneven at some points) that provided weightier contrast with its surrounding Scherzo sections, rather than the other way around. After the breezy indifference of the Finale’s opening, impetuous interjections from the brass kicked the movement into vibrant action, with the sweeping second subject maintaining purpose. Through Bruckner’s typically challenging changes of direction across the Symphony, Mena steered an unobtrusive but consistent and compelling course.

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