Juanjo Mena’s tenure as the BBC Philharmonic’s Chief Conductor came to an end after six years at the helm. For his final concert, he brought an evening of Iberian passion to the Bridgewater Hall. The orchestra was joined by Martin Roscoe on piano in the Albéniz, and a stellar cast of singers in the Falla. The programme contained rarities by just two composers. The evening’s repertoire was not such to overly excite box office sales, but the Manchester audience were treated to some exceptional music making.

Juanjo Mena © Michal Novak
Juanjo Mena
© Michal Novak

The short first half was dedicated entirely to lsaac Albéniz. Opening the concert was the overture to his comic opera, The Magic Opal, which is one of a handful of Albéniz’s works orchestrated by himself. A substantial overture of approximately nine minutes filled the hall with a late romantic ambience. This lyrical and highly colourful piece has moments that sound akin to Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. The orchestra started in fine form, playing with unity and high, exacting standards. 

Albéniz’s Rapsodia española – a piano concerto rarity – allowed Roscoe to shine as soloist. Originally written for two pianos it was orchestrated by George Enescu who, with his empathetic understanding of gypsy music, brings a lot of intense colour to this orchestral tour de force. Perhaps a work more associated with Alicia de Larrocha, Roscoe sounded perfectly at home. His initial entry was intense with sensitively shaped phrasing. Mena balanced the orchestra perfectly. There was fine harp playing, guitar imitations and the obligatory castanets to complete the Spanish flavour. As the piece romped along to its finale, the close musical bond between soloist and conductor and their complete trust in each other was very obvious. To rapturous applause, Roscoe gave Mena a warm and fitting embrace.

Billed by the BBC Philharmonic as “a rare treat”, Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve (Life is short) was given a remarkably vivacious concert performance after the interval. The dark brooding and tragic mood of the opening transported the audience immediately to Granada. The stars of the evening were numerous not least the chorus Coro RTVE, a choir of professional singers from Spain. From the back of the choir stalls the men of the chorus had incredible projection and pristine diction, they captured the forge workers with character and intensity which was echoed effortlessly by Gustavo Peña (the voice from the forge). When joined by the ladies later in the opera, the full impact of this tremendous group could be fully appreciated. 

The solo voices were flawlessly matched, each one a distinguished singer, but together their voices were like a vocal constellation. Nancy Fabiola Herrera in the part of Salud, sang the role effortlessly with such intense gypsy passion her voice possessing a beautiful mellifluous tone. She has performed this role many times and this was clear from her astonishing assurance. Making eye contact with members of the audience throughout, one felt truly engaged with the drama. Playing Paco, Aquiles Machado, was an equal match to Herrera. Cristina Faus as the Grandmother and José Antonia López as Uncle Savaro were perfectly balanced and sang with a truly beguiling care and compassion. Completing the principal roles was Raquel Lojendio as Carmela, her soprano voice against the two mezzos complemented the ensemble impeccably. Not all the cast were professional opera singers, the part of Cantaor was given to Segundo Falcón, a superb flamenco singer. Obviously not at ease, Mena ensured each of his entries were completely secure. Once singing, Falcón ably accompanied by Vincent Coves on guitar, was totally immersed in the music and gave that truly authentic feeling of Andalusia with extra passion.

This huge score, which at times sounds like Puccini with castanets, has frequently changing meters and tempi, something which Mena handled effortlessly more so in the substantial orchestral interludes. Here the versatility of the BBC Philharmonic shone through. In the instrumental passages Mena brought to the fore all the vibrancy in the music creating the illusion of sauntering sunshine and azure blue skies, above the quintessentially whitewashed buildings of the streets with their window boxes brimming with vermilion geraniums. So vivid was this depiction one did not notice the lack of set or props.

It really paid to have a cast and chorus of Spanish speakers, it ensured a uniformity to create a truly authentic rendition. The passion of the chorus, orchestra and singers alike would have blown-off the proverbial sombrero. The standing ovation lasted ten minutes. Mena was presented with a bouquet from Simon Webb, general manager of the orchestra, before leaving the platform plaintively with a tear in his eye.