Few concert programmes can feature such different works based on the same inspiration, but the BBC Philharmonic managed the intricacies of Bach and the grandeur of Bruckner with great success. The biggest tragedy of the evening was the audience: the whole top tier of seating was closed, and the stalls were barely half full.

Juanjo Mena © BBC Philharmonic / Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena
© BBC Philharmonic / Sussie Ahlburg

On his appointment as Kantor of the Leipzig Thomaskirche in 1723, J.S. Bach immediately set about writing cantatas to be performed either side of sermons. He did so at an astonishing rate, producing some thirty in that year alone. The seventh, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (“Heart and voice and deed and life”) was heard tonight with a quartet of fine soloists and the Manchester Chamber Choir.

For an orchestra which plays relatively little Bach, there was a very convincing lightness and fluidity in the music. Two particularly pleasing facets of this were the continuo and trumpet playing. The organ and harpsichord provided unobtrusive accompaniment throughout, the former very careful and perfectly blended to the orchestra and choir. The trumpet playing, by contrast, was wonderfully nimble, navigating semiquaver passages with the ease of a violinist.

Of the four soloists, soprano Julia Doyle and countertenor Robin Blaze were the most striking. Doyle’s control at high pitches was superb in her aria, and her interaction with guest leader Daniel Bell showed a touching mutual willingness to listen and adapt. In the alto aria, Blaze treated consonants with exquisite softness, particularly effective when singing of “the presence of the Father”. The Manchester Chamber Choir took a few moments to settle initially, before providing a warm and solid choral sound. A smaller chorus might have been helpful in matching the lightness of the orchestra, and they could have afforded greater articulation in places, but they sang with smiles and closed the work with a touching chorale, “Jesus remains my joy”.

In contrast to Bach’s quick production of Leipzig cantatas, Anton Bruckner took nine years to write three quarters of his final symphony, the final movement lying unfinished at his death. Its dedication, to “dem lieben Gott”, signalled the composer’s designs towards a grand expression of faith. In this reading Juanjo Mena effectively balanced tension and heroism in a very well-structured and satisfying performance.

Tempi were steady throughout, mostly unfussily conducted in minims in the slow movements, which gave the whole work an underlying sense of spaciousness. This was a slow-burning performance with few sharp edges, eschewing sudden changes in direction and therefore carrying tremendous weight. In several places, Mena’s building of tension in soft string passages was superbly paced, emerging into brass resolution with a well-deserved sense of climax.

In contrast to the outer movements, where Mena’s broad, even vague beating gave such a sense of space, he conducted with great intensity and weight in the Scherzo, drawing pounding, claustrophobic playing from the orchestra. The central trio was clear and light, punctuated by ferocious timpani playing, before a return to hammering triple time. The subsequent opening of the third movement found an airiness in the dissonant harmonies which worked very well to redeem and pull the music away from the second movement’s relentless intensity.

Though not a technically flawless performance, with occasional slips in coordination and tuning, the orchestral playing was mostly very good. The nine horns were undoubtedly the highlight. Solos throughout the section were all well played, and interactions with other sections were attentive and modest. They blended beautifully with the strings’ luxuriously rich legato in the first movement, and they led a wonderfully glowing crescendo towards the final brass climax in the third, after some gloriously soft playing from the Wagner tuba quartet. The final chord of the piece was capped by an unwavering, sustained high B in the horns, and they greatly deserved their bow.