Juanjo Mena opened the BBC Philharmonic’s 2014 home season with a programme entitled ‘Beethoven Explored’, in which the great composer’s Fourth and Ninth symphonies were presented with shining, punchy directness of sound and tremendous energy.

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlberg
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlberg

The Phil made a name for itself with Beethoven in 2005, when its free downloads of the nine symphonies under Gianandrea Noseda attracted some 1.4 million downloads. Listening back to those recordings now, a good deal of their strong character has been retained by Mena, with the same rhythmic clarity and vitality, but perhaps with a touch more grace in the more lyrical corners of the Fourth Symphony and the slow movement of the Ninth. Tonight the Fourth suffered from occasional mild scrappiness, and the sprawling finale of the Ninth came across a little episodic, but the greater impression as the standing ovation died down was of thrilling, heartfelt Beethoven which hit a neat balance between traditional and modern performance practices.

The Fourth Symphony was given minus a desk of strings, which perhaps helped the remarkably high-definition sound produced in the outer movements without compromising on power in moments such as the deep breath at the end of the symphony’s long introduction. The opening chords hung in the air with a pleasing tone colour and sense of mystery, accompanied by well voiced woodwind interjections. The Allegro vivace was brilliantly vivacious, especially in comparison with the softer moments. Great care was taken over phrase shape without any disruption of long structure being threatened.

In parallel with the first movement, the Adagio showed good contrast between the insistently snapping dotted figure and the long, sweetly sung melodic lines, of which John Bradbury’s clarinet solo was especially fine at a strikingly quiet dynamic. The front eight string players interacted well to bounce their semiquaver lines between one another with great expressive care.

The scherzo and finale were both quick and light, pursuing a breathless tempo with a good deal of force and directness behind the sound, which was retained for the third movement trio to good effect. The impressive clarity of sound was maintained right to the very back of each string section, making for a spatially wide yet musically focussed sound. The fourth movement flew along into its thrilling last pages via another joyous clarinet solo, before the closing phrase was heralded by the most vigorous of descending cello lines. It is difficult to remember having enjoyed a performance of the Fourth as much as this.

The same explosive energy was carried into the opening movement of the Ninth Symphony, which at times raged with extraordinarily powerful thrust. Much of this, and also in the second and fourth movements, was thanks to the antics of timpanist Paul Turner, whose superb playing would later earn him by far the loudest cheer of the evening. The structure of the first movement was made entirely transparent by Mena, much helped by the thunderous timpani outburst at the recapitulation. The stirring immediacy of the orchestral playing made for a tremendous sense of electricity, and the almighty end of the movement drew a collective intake of breath from the audience as they unpinned themselves from their seats.

The scherzo once again saw impressive precision in the furious string playing above the brass/timpani engine room. The bustling optimism of the trio was well conveyed too, especially in the expertly played horn solos. I remember being impressed by Alberto Menéndez Escribano, the orchestra’s new Principal Horn, with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester a few years ago, and he led his section with great authority tonight.

The slow movement was beautifully airy at Mena’s slow tempo, allowing full appreciation of the second violin and violas’ rich tone and subtleties of articulation. Interactions between principal flute and oboe were memorably gorgeous, and the unusually high demands for fourth horn were shrugged aside with ease and grace.

And so to the finale, that ‘symphony within a symphony’, which rarely fails to delight an audience. Mena took the famous tune quickly and fairly boldly in its initial orchestral appearance. Alastair Miles leapt to his feet for his excellent solo, an imposing figure at the back of the stage in summoning forth the massed voices of the CBSO Chorus. They had made the journey up the M6 for the last in a run of ninths which has taken in Paris, Bonn, Birmingham and Hanley, and immediately produced a vast sound with clear diction and a good sense of meaning imbued into the words. Tenor John Daszak’s pure-toned voice was light and joyful in the brisk Turkish March, and the two Spanish female soloists, soprano Raquel Lojendio and mezzo Clara Mouriz, were both warm and elegant in sound, with good control at the high end of the range.

Each section of the finale was carried off with pleasing character and fine technical skill, but as the coda loomed, I found myself missing a degree of coherence in the movement. For all it had been superbly played and sung, it did not quite gel into a whole as well as it might have. Yet as the Chorus negotiated their last angular and soaringly high lines with total assurance, and the timpani blazed through the final bars, this was quickly forgotten. A lengthy ovation followed: clearly I am not alone in thinking that this is an orchestra which does Beethoven particularly well.