Spanish conductor Jesús López-Cobos’ debut appearance with the BBC Philharmonic produced some wonderful results with a thoughtful and widely-varying programme of twentieth century music.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet © Paul Mitchell
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
© Paul Mitchell
The evening’s highlight was Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s dashing account of the bimanual Ravel Piano Concerto, which combined technical facility with enormous musical sensibility to create a memorable performance. In the outer movements, the tempi set by López-Cobos made high demands on all involved, particularly the woodwind principals. Aside from a couple of slips of ensemble in the first movement these demands were met with aplomb. Bavouzet, for his part, offered from his first notes a wonderfully balanced, mellow palette of tones, with admirable clarity in the piano’s lower register and free sense of spaciousness in the airier right hand writing. This was especially welcome in the slow movement, where López-Cobos maintained a strict pulse with little indulgence of rubato. Bavouzet, though, together with superb additions from cor anglais, found all the requisite expressiveness purely in their intonation and phrasing.

The finale charged along at considerable pace, with all the circus elements enjoyed with gusto, from trombone yawns to timpani cannon shots. Bavouzet did an admirable job of maintaining a high-resolution clarity in his playing, in sharp contrast to the softer colours of the slow movement. The audience’s very enthusiastic reception was rewarded by a dazzling (and humorous) Pierné encore.

Before the Ravel, the orchestra, minus the woodwinds, opened the concert with Paul Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass of 1930, a 17-minute, two-part work written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s fiftieth birthday (one wonders how the Boston woodwind must have felt at their omission from the festivities). Tonight the ceremonies were announced with a bold tutti brass sound, carefully balanced and with excellent ensemble. Unusually for this orchestra, the violins were seated opposite each other, which gave good results in the fugato of the second movement. A softer-edged passage for horns and strings gave an attractive moment of introspection before a return to the crisp energy of the opening.

Jesús López Cobos’ helpful but unfussy, straightforward direction suited Mahler’s most innocent of symphonies very well indeed and, impressively, he conducted the symphony entirely from memory. Interestingly, he launched straight into the opening bars as soon as the applause had died down, without anything like the long pause which usually precedes a Mahler symphony. Nor was there any excess of sentiment in the opening lines, with minimal pause on the first phrase, from which point the first movement evolved in a particularly innocent and earnest manner. The Philharmonic strings’ trademark clarity of attack and crispness was put to good use, highlighting a rich tapestry of details as well as capturing all of the music’s considerable charm. The horn solos were especially distinguished.

The inner movements were more widely spaced, perhaps to the slight expense of the music’s greater structure, but also plumbing great emotional depths and creating a beautifully serene atmosphere to precede the monumental strophe of the third movement. Here, suddenly was a burst of sunlight, with thundering timpani and blazing brass heralding Ruby Hughes’ Himmlische Leben. Her singing was beautiful in timbre and impressive in characterisation of the text, with subtle emphases on the mentions of animal slaughter. It was a pity that she did not quite always project above the Mahlerian orchestra – perhaps more could have been done by conductor and orchestra to help in this regard – but it was nonetheless a fitting end to an excellent evening.