Manchester was treated to a spectacular night of orchestral music as the BBC Philharmonic took to the stage of Bridgewater Hall for a power-packed performance.

The evening began with a performance of Stravinsky’s sombre and melancholic work, Funeral Song. Written in 1908 on the death of Rimsky-Korsakov, this remarkable piece is steeped in mystery as the work was all but lost to the world for many years. After the first performance at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1909, the score and parts disappeared, not to be found for over 100 years. They were eventually rediscovered in 2015, hidden behind a stack of scores in the conservatory library. The work has been adopted by some of the world’s very best orchestras, including Manchester’s very own BBC Philharmonic, conducted on Saturday evening by Ben Gernon.

Carolin Widmann © Lennard Rahle
Carolin Widmann
© Lennard Rahle

This moody work was described by Stravinsky as “the best of my works before The Firebird”, and the score’s rich, chromatic harmonies, woodwind flurries and sumptuous strings seemed to herald the same colourful style of the composer’s later works. The work depicts a mournful scene involving each solo instrument filing past the tomb of the “master” in succession, each laying down its own melody as a wreath.

However, even taking into account the subdued subject of the piece, the performance did feel as though it was lacking a little in strength, drama and dynamic contrast, notably in the strings. After the ghostly pianissimo of the start, the dynamic level never quite scaled to the right level of intensity in the climactic section, progressing to a moderate forte at most, and not quite falling back enough in accompanying rhythmic passages. Despite this, the overall performance was still hugely enjoyable, with beautiful solos from the woodwind in particular.

After a quick stage re-set, the concert continued with one of the world’s best-loved concertos: Mendelssohn’s iconic Violin Concerto in E minor. Known and loved throughout the world, everyone has their favourite recording, their perfect idea of what this piece should sound like, making life very tricky for soloist Carolin Widmann. However, she rose to the challenge to deliver a commanding, engaging performance, flaunting her immense skill and sensitive musicality. Treating the audience to high registers that rang through the hall and indulgent tones from the instrument’s lowest notes, Widmann’s performance oozed in charm, dexterity and musicality that made this work seem completely afresh.

From the very first orchestral tutti, the true power of this fantastic orchestra came to light with an impressive wave of sound. From the front desks to the back, every member connected with the musicians around them to create an amazing sound that ebbed and flowed with Mendelssohn’s magnificent score. From the melodrama of the first movement, to the smooth cantabile of the second and the showy pizzazz of the third, this fantastic performance displayed all the colour, strength and contrast I was looking for.

As impressed as I was after this spectacular performance, the Mendelssohn was nothing compared to the triumphant Tchaikovsky that was to follow. The Russian composer’s Fifth Symphony takes you on a journey of faith. Concerning fate, this powerful work is often read as a reflection on Tchaikovsky’s own life and career. Although hugely successful, Tchaikovsky found himself lonely and unhappy, and believed his life was ruled by an inescapable fate or destiny. This searching symphony opens with an ominous “fate” motif, stylishly introduced by the clarinet, whose tone, articulation and musicality brought a spark of magic to the performance right from the very start. These characteristics were taken up by the rest of the orchestra as the theme developed, with each note and phrase treated with immense care to deliver a spellbinding performance.

The brilliance of the first movement melted softly into a beautifully serene lower string section before the melancholic horn solo took over to introduce a wonderfully majestic second movement. Tchaikovsky’s signature balletic style came to the fore in the third, before the power of the opening movement returned in a blaze of glory in the finale. Boasting an incredible sense of ensemble, this BBC Philharmonic held the audience in the palms of their hands. 

****1