The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra are at once to be commended for colourful programming, and this evening’s concert was an excellent example of their facility in imagination. Tonight the audience dreamed with Debussy, swung with Gershwin, were lulled and bathed in the Spanish sunshine by Granados and, finally, blown from their seats and into the streets with Mussorgsky.

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlburg

First, Debussy’s Images, a set of three richly orchestrated pieces with a haze-like, dreamy influence, in which the Philharmonic were able to display their affinity for precision in difficult scores. Each movement, presenting its own technical problems, was tackled beautifully and, as a tour de force for woodwind and strings especially, the orchestra excelled in Debussy’s rich textures which are colourfully augmented by two harps and an array of percussion.

From a Debussy dreamland to the American Dream and Gershwin’s highly-charged Rhapsody in Blue. Pianist Stephen Osborne made a welcome return to Manchester, having appeared in the last twelve months playing Debussy and Ravel at the RNCM and Chetham’s School of Music respectively. Despite being originally composed in great haste for the famous American band leader Paul Whiteman, Gershwin’s original jazz-band scoring was re-orchestrated by the lesser known American composer Ferde Grofé, whom some might know as the composer of the atmospheric Grand Canyon Suite and the hysterical Hollywood Suite. Beginning with the famous clarinet glissando, the Philharmonic revelled in the opportunity to ‘let their hair down’ and swing for sixteen minutes of jazzy excitement. Giving a dramatic and forceful performance, Osborne’s intensity of sound was easily matched to the might of Grofé’s orchestration and his staggering technical facility made not only for entertaining listening, but also for remarkable viewing. Wildly applauded, Osborne was invited back onto the platform three times.

The Bridgewater Hall’s now electric atmosphere, still buzzing from this gaudy jazz number, was soon cleared, soothed and purified by an extra un-programmed treat – the charming little Intermezzo from Enrique Granados’ opera Goyescas (1916). Announced affectionately from the podium by Mena, it quickly became apparent that this music is close to his heart and the Philharmonic gave an enchanting performance of Granados’ warmly orchestrated and delicate miniature; one could almost sense a sweet Spanish breeze soothing the air, acting both as a perfectly sensual antidote to Gershwin’s energetic Rhapsody and appropriately sober preparation for the forthcoming Mussorgsky. The piece being set in a sauntering, balmy waltz-time, some listeners may have spotted an almost uncanny similarity between the principal tune of Granados’ Intermezzo and Sibelius’ Valse Triste and, even if they didn’t, the audience was delighted and responded warmly. I hope we may be able to hear the rest of this opera in the future.

Maurice Ravel’s masterful, and possibly definitive, orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the finest examples of orchestral colouring ever penned. The work’s ten movements (which are preceded by and interspersed with a recurring ‘Promenade’ theme) are based on Mussorgsky’s musical reactions to paintings by his friend, the artist Viktor Hartmann.

From the opening strains of the first Promenade by the Philharmonic’s principal trumpet, Jamie Prophet, the brass section led the whole orchestra into a clear-toned fanfare that heralded one the best live performances of this work that I have ever encountered. Well paced and displaying skilful interpretations of some truly fearsome, exposed orchestral writing, the Philharmonic and their Musical Director Juanjo Mena can be very pleased with their exemplary reading of this intense score, the final chords of which left the audience applauding loudly.