Transatlantic journeys over the years have always captured the imagination. The QE2 ocean liner added glamour. Concorde added speed. And musical journeys across the Atlantic are no less exciting. With Juanjo Mena at the helm in what turned out to be his final concert as Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, this varied programme of 20th-century Anglo-American pieces had him flitting from one side of the ocean to the other, mixing established pieces from Britten with some rather left-field pieces from Barber and Copland to create an intriguing musical travelogue, starting with William Walton’s first orchestral work. 

Juanjo Mena © Michal Novak
Juanjo Mena
© Michal Novak

Written in 1925 and inspired by an etching by Thomas Rowlandson, Portsmouth Point depicts the sailor’s on-shore life of exuberance and excess. Mena and the on-form BBC Philharmonic wasted no time plundering the youthful Walton’s dynamic imagery, full of mischievous pomp and impish playfulness. The dense orchestration, with its weighty brass and percussion, was taken briskly but firmly, and the Stravinskian rhythmic complexities were, for the most part, kept under tight control. This was seven minutes of heart-pumping fervour, but it was only a taster for what was to come next.

When Aaron Copland is on the bill, we tend to get the usual suspects. But on this occasion, it was the uncompromising and experimental Copland that we saw, not the Americana. Connotations was written after his populist period, featuring the likes of Rodeo, Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring, and signalled a brief return to his earlier dissonant style, this time employing Schoenberg’s 12-tone system of serialism. Mena powered straight into Copland’s concrete blocks of sound, somewhat reminiscent of Varèse, with huge force and biting tension but also with a degree of finesse. The shimmering mystery of the central pastoral section provided temporary relief from the vibrancy of the granite brass and agile percussion, and the difficult, intricate rhythms were generally held together well, with just one or two slippages, but the overall effect was uncomfortably thrilling, with the big sound of the BBC Philharmonic providing a terrifying climax.

Benjamin Britten’s song-cycle Les Illuminations for voice and string orchestra was inspired by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, providing a rich seam of expression for soprano Sally Matthews. Matthews has a wonderfully mellow tone, and her natural ability to navigate melisma and sometimes jagged musical lines allowed her to capture the enigmatic qualities of both the words and music, with Mena sympathetically shaping the glistening effects of Britten’s orchestration underneath. From episodes of rhythmic drive skipping brightly along to moments of relaxed drifting, Matthews exuded refinement in her technique and control, with contrasting moods subtly evoked. The highlights were the soprano’s tingling soaring lines in “Marine” and the emotionally charged “Being Beauteous”, with Matthews digging deep in the strained sensuality over Mena’s slow, evocative pulses.

Samuel Barber’s third opera, Antony and Cleopatra, was harshly criticised initially, but thankfully the music has not been abandoned. After all, if the composer himself considered it to be some of his best music, then this must tell you something. Mena opened the first of two scenes extracted for this concert performance, “Give me some music”, with carefully controlled shimmerings while Matthews fully embraced Cleopatra’s pent-up emotion as she reminisced over her time with Antony. The angst and pathos grew in the second scene, “Death of Cleopatra”, with wonderful ground swells building up through the orchestra and Matthews adding to the fractious tensions of impending doom with intensity and depth, with both singer and orchestra conveying forcefully the full drama of the tragedy.

Mena then closed his BBC Philharmonic chapter with Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes. With great care taken over the shaping and distinctive colourations of this evocative piece, Mena generated a suitably sharp and perfunctory “Sunday Morning”, albeit slightly loose in one or two places, and coaxed carefully pointed nocturnal mutterings and hushed throbbing refrains out of the orchestra in “Moonlight”, with a violent and furiously paced “Storm” to bring things to a fittingly dynamic close.