Chief conductor Juanjo Mena conducted a programme of energetic Beethoven and Schubert alongside an original reading of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlburg, BBC Philharmonic
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlburg, BBC Philharmonic

Hearing little-played Beethoven is a rare treat in the concert hall, and Mena made a strong case for the great man’s Ritterballett (“Knight Ballet”) music. The suite, which was composed at the age of 20, consists of eight numbers, with the second, a slow “German Song”, repeated after each of numbers three to six. Played with relatively rich vibrato, the slow numbers came across as warm and subtle variations in pacing and dynamics prevented the repeated song from becoming tiresome. The quicker movements also fared well, with a Haydnesque lightness in the first and athletic brass and timpani playing elsewhere. The highlight was an extraordinarily lovely horn duet in the Hunting Song, combining light articulation with beauty of sound to great effect.

In contrast to the Ritterballett, the Mozart and Schubert were both products of their composers’ final years. Schubert’s final symphony, the “Great” C major, came in a temporary remission from syphilis, during a holiday in the Austrian Alps. Tonight’s performance carried enormous energy; each movement was taken relatively quickly, and for a work of some 55 minutes, it was over in a flash. The strings, though reinforced to seven desks of first violins, played with great clarity and athleticism, and it was this that gave the finale such drive.

The first movement opens with an extended slow introduction, here played with a gentle smile, before entering the Allegro. The transition was slightly askew in co-ordination, but ensemble was quickly re-established with vigorous attack. Tutti passages generally saw the brass and timpani unleashed to noisy excitability, but there were also some lovely sudden hushes in the development. Later on the second subject was worked up to a sense of urgency, leading the movement to a vivacious conclusion.

The second movement, a stately andante with shades of the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh, was permeated by a tight, almost haughty staccato. Around this the woodwind solos, in particular the oboe, were given space for pleasing subtleties of phrasing. The oboe solos, to which the music returns several times, had great personality and beauty. The Scherzo, by contrast, opened with aggressive lower strings, occasionally boarding on violence, before a gently lilting Trio. Here Mena did a good job of reconciling graceful violin and woodwind melodies to the underlying dotted rhythms.

The finale took a few bars to settle on an ambitious tempo which, when it arrived, promised a breathless charge to the end. The performance did not disappoint. The strings maintained furious energy in their irresistible triplets and the coda’s heavy crotchets were attacked with great weight. The indefatigable strings and boisterous brass brought the symphony to a joyous conclusion, rounding off a superb performance.

Between the Beethoven and Mozart, young British clarinettist Julian Bliss was soloist for the Mozart. He played the concerto on the basset clarinet for which it was written, which allowed access to a greater range in the lower register. Performances on modern clarinets are forced to transpose up to avoid passages requiring these notes, but Bliss’ use of the older instrument gave his performance an extra level of impressiveness. Clear technical mastery of the concerto left plenty of scope to create a fairly personal and engaging reading for such a familiar work. His own dynamics and phrasing were obvious throughout, and his physicality on stage served to highlight these. In the outer movements his playing was fluid and agile, even in the lower register, where the darker colours of the basset were shown.

The famous slow movement seemed to improve with time. The first half didn’t quite touch the listener as it might have done, until a particularly beautiful moment when emerging from the cadenza. The strings here played with a breathily quiet pianissimo, and the remainder of the movement was far more moving. The concerto as a whole was certainly very good, and Bliss’ ovation was well-deserved.

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