Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro’s debut with the BBC Philharmonic was a rich tapestry of attractive individual scenes, culminating in an elegantly played (if not overwhelming) performance of Mahler’s Fifth symphony.

Joana Carneiro
© Dave Weiland

Mahler’s symphonies fare well in Manchester this season, with performances of numbers 1, 3 and 5 forming highlights in the diary. Tonight number 5 was placed alongside music by Mendelssohn and a Jeffrey Mumford world premiere. Finding a unifying connection in the programme was difficult, beyond the obvious alliteration. Curiously, the most energetic music of the evening came in the least expected place, in Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, with soloist Denis Kozhukhin. With the string section pared down by half, the orchestral sound was immediately punchy and crisp, with clarity in string articulation and a light touch from brass and timpani. The outer movements zipped along at ambitious tempi with irrepressible energy and charm. The off-beat accents of the finale were tackled with relish and Kozhukhin found exquisite detail among the sparkling flurry of notes. The central Andante found great beauty in its transient stillness, as did Kozhukhin’s encore of a Mendelssohn Song without words.

Carneiro’s style on the rostrum is probably the most visibly energetic I’ve seen, with vigorous flourishes and lunges marking out musical highlights among a whirlwind of elbows. The opening funeral march was strikingly forceful from the outset, its tone set by an uncommonly belligerent trumpet solo by Phillip Cobb, the LSO’s on-loan Principal Trumpet. There was a wealth of detail to be admired, most memorably the remorselessly terse triplets of the opening line, which seemed darker at every appearance. The second movement appropriately continued the same vigour, Carneiro’s direction exhausting to watch amid pleasingly grotesque woodwind effects. There was space to honour small details such as an attractive solo for the cello section and the momentary cloud-break was thrillingly bright. The Scherzo continued the same pattern, with savage wind effects and a ghoulish pizzicato passage played with great character. Guest Principal Horn Itamar Leshem played the concertante solo from a standing position behind the second violins with unwavering attractiveness of sound.

The Adagietto found a memorably rich string sound at a slow tempo, though with clear enough structure to create an appreciable climax in musical tension at the heart of the movement. The finale dawned slowly and brightly and though there were plenty of attractive moments to be appreciated, it never quite reached the same drama of the first two movements. It occasionally seemed to require a monumental effort to get off the ground and was not quite the same high-octane Mahler 5 finale as this orchestra have produced previously. It was a polished performance in microcosm, but overall there was less “darkness to light” narrative than is usually applied to the piece in the absence of a convincing turning point in the third or fourth movement or a blistering finale.

The world premiere of American composer Jeffrey Mumford’s new BBC commission, entitled within diffuse echoes… softly spreading was a curious affair. The composer describes the 18-minute piece as a painting of a “floating world resonant with many layers of late-afternoon and early-evening light... how clouds collect and disperse”. It is on the long side for a new commission programme opener and with a length similar to the Mendelssohn did not quite fit the casually expected format of entertaining curtain-raiser. It is also scored for ambitious forces, with quadruple woodwind, two harps, piano and tuned percussion. The abstract soundscape was punctuated by virtuosic wind and tuned percussion contributions and the strings played with incisive energy. With its intangible shape and rippling pizzicato echoes in the last pages, it conveyed its title’s image effectively and was very well received. I’ll look forward to hearing it again on the radio broadcast.