Juanjo Mena conducted the BBC Philharmonic in one of those rare concerts in which clever programming and superb playing combine to produce a truly exhausting and memorable experience.

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlburg
The main draw for the large audience was surely an outing for Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, but in Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, Mena and Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić produced results more than worthy of high praise in their own right. Bartók's concerto was written as the composer slipped into the end stages of leukaemia, finally succumbing to polycythaemia in late September 1945, while also struggling for money and popularity in New York. It sees a departure from the radical innovations which characterise much of his output, instead turning back to a more romantic form. This is particularly evident in the slow movement, marked religioso. Here the profoundly eloquent hymns were passed between piano and strings with utmost sensitivity, giving great care to the simple music. This was especially moving in the context of the tragedy of the symphony later in the evening.

The two outer movements, by contrast, flowed along with admirable clarity, even amidst the dashing, flighty rhythms of the finale. Lazić gave his solo line with huge flair, while also finding moments for beautiful delicacy of touch and phrasing, and the bold timpani solos, given with strong articulation, reflected the heavily percussive piano part. The last minutes charged to a sparkling, riotous end.

In Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, Mena found a pleasing balance between the moments of high drama and the long, often tortured passages in the central movements. It was a slow-burning, coherent reading, which reached spectacular heights before a standing ovation, a response with which Mancunians are particularly frugal.

After a breezy and muscular opening scene, the famous march passage emerged at a relatively brisk tempo but at an almost impossibly soft dynamic, the string section making the lightest of feathery touches on their instruments. Paul Patrick, manning the side drum, remained steadfastly rooted to tempo while driving the tension inexorably upwards towards a shattering climax. David Chatwin’s bassoon solo found glimpses of tears beneath an otherwise guarded façade.

In the inner movements, Mena maintained relatively relaxed tempi, allowing his players to create dark tension in their attention to articulation and phrasing, making the fleeting moments of woodwind warmth all the more poignant. The long violin lines of the Adagio carried profound intensity, before a central quicker passage which was all blazing brass and steely determination.

Both at the start of the finale – leading on directly from the Adagio – and before the tumultuous last minutes of the symphony, Mena created a powerful sense of stillness, much aided by the excellent pianissimo control of the orchestra. The Allegro itself was quite a jolt, rollicking along with uncompromising and often brutal force. This settled into another passage of gritty motionlessness, with great menace lurking in the oscillating bass figures and a strikingly heavy, breathless silence taking the audience. The sense of relief was enormous when, at the peak of a huge uphill struggle, Mena finally indulged the triumphant last pages to their maximum heroism, marking the end of a superb performance. The BBC Radio 3 broadcast on Wednesday should be well worth hearing.

*****