The BBC Philharmonic’s season-long exploration of America, and the works of Leonard Bernstein in particular, brought us this fascinating programme of intriguingly juxtaposed perspectives from the old world and the new, before a heartfelt return to the European tradition with an original account of Brahms’ Third Symphony.

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlburg
The brightest colours of the night were found in the effervescent brass and percussion figures of Dvořák’s Carnival Overture. Written in the immediate aftermath of an invitation to teach in New York, it made an excellent opening to the evening. Juanjo Mena dashed through the opening paragraphs’ sub-themes with vivacity, well rewarded by his string section’s precise articulation in the dense semiquaver passages. The inner passages found some attractive woodwind playing before a bracing return to the original themes.

Written for the new millennium, and appropriately looking both forward and back, Thomas Adès wrote his America – A Prophecy to explore the effect of Spanish colonisation on the Maya in the early 16th century. The Mayan text is accompanied by musical contrasting of invasion and conquest versus well-meaning enlightenment. Almost immediately in the first movement, the evoked pan-pipe figures were disrupted by shrill, bells-up woodwind shrieks. Similarly brutal offerings came from the double basses’ Bartók pizzicato and a thrilling passage for brass and drums. Susan Bickley sang the particularly graphic text with a rich palette of wild emotion and, elsewhere, moving softness and clarity of tone. One particularly effective passage in the second stanza found her singing isolated and high in pitch, supported only sparsely by repeated bottom notes on the piano, with the left hand stopping the strings to enhance the percussive effect of the sound.

The second movement was altogether less robustly volatile, with Mena guiding the orchestra into suitably airy playing for “We shall turn to ash” and subsequently into a fabulous evocation of a rolling sea. The dark sunset at the end of the piece, more Alpensinfonie than Brahms 3, made a powerful point: “Ash feels no pain”.

Canadian violinist James Ehnes joined the orchestra for Britten’s Violin Concerto, premiered in New York in 1940. The menacing opening timpani and cymbal figure of the first movement was neatly translated into a sweeter version for bassoon and harp, before undergoing further treatment by the violin section and Ehnes. The underlying tension of the work manifested in Mahlerian irony and often grotesque sounds, against some elegant string section playing. The central Vivace movement found further restless energy, especially in the intense anguish conveyed in the soloist’s lines, before a fabulous passacaglia finale, in which thundering percussion gave way to a hushed trombone chorale before a suddenly tragic turn in the last pages. Here, Ehnes played with enormous beauty of tone, delicately balanced to the pianissimo murmurings of the orchestra.

Britten had no great fondness for Brahms, and so Simon Webb, the orchestra’s General Manager, noted that the inclusion of the latter’s Third symphony in the programme was deliberately provocative. Juanjo Mena and his players created a very pleasing and original account of this most subtle of the composer’s four symphonies, embracing the thick, rich textures of traditional Brahms with the forward-looking tempos and incisive attack of more recent performances. The first movement carried superb sense of constantly flowing motion in its pulse, buoyed along by warm legato in the strings and, in the second theme, sensitive and graceful accompaniment of the woodwinds. It was a pity that the repeat was omitted, the music instead rolling inexorably onward, seeming to pause, with enormous relief, near the end of the movement.

The same flow was created by the relatively brisk tempi of the rest of the symphony, allowing long phrases to be emphasised. The second movement, with Mena often beating two-in-a-bar, was a thing of great beauty for the lightest of clarinet solos and, later, gently moulded string phrasing. The strings, guest-led by Sergey Ostrovsky, played with stirring passion in the movement’s climactic moments before further fine clarinet playing above trombones, who neatly highlighted the restless chromatic figure which ties the symphony together.

After Alberto Menéndez’s distinguished, exquisitely softly-handled account of the third movement’s horn solo, the abrupt tension of the finale erupted with great fire in the collective bellies of the basses, low brass and timpani. Here, for the first time, the music raged with thrilling intensity. This was short-lived, though, as Mena pushed forwards into the sunset, pulling back on the reins only at the last moment to close an original and moving account of the symphony, and an ingenious-devised programme.