Last night’s curtain raiser to the BBC Philharmonic’s new season also saw the start of a season-long final curtain for Juanjo Mena as Chief Conductor of the BBC’s Northern orchestra. The Spaniard, credited by The Guardian for turning the Philharmonic into “the best Spanish orchestra in the country”, still has recordings and performances of Falla and Albeniz to come this season, but opened with Mahler’s colossal Third Symphony to a sizeable Bridgewater audience, swelled by opening night fever, and by the chance to hear one of the most celebrated symphonies in the repertory.

Juanjo Mena © Michal Novak
Juanjo Mena
© Michal Novak

The piece is brash and imposing, described by Mahler himself as a symphony “the like of which the world has never heard”. Spread over six movements and scored for large symphony orchestra, children’s choir, female voices and mezzo-soprano soloist, the practical task of programming the late 19th-century giant is tricky in itself. Fortunately, the Philharmonic has the resources and the endeavour to accomplish it; they follow a well-received Gurrelieder with the Hallé with a 2017/18 programme promising an exploration of music and the human spirit, through love, politics, anguish and self-reflection.

The opening of the first movement was played with all the brooding ceremony required of a movement originally intended to depict the awakening of Pan, the god of nature. Out of a lexicon of detailed German musical vocabulary, Mahler employs the words ‘kräftig’ (powerful) and ‘entschieden’ (resolute), two ideas that Mena stuck to consistently through the half-hour long opening. Two moments stood out in particular, one in keeping with this theme and one slightly unexpected. Firstly, the most impressive soloist of the night, trombonist Richard Brown, delivered his famous solo with an exquisite sense of restraint, depth of colour and a striking projection, backed up in tutti sections by wide, sonorous ensemble playing from the low brass section. The second came in the form of a shining example of Mahler’s skilful orchestration, muted violins and high winds gave way to the first of a series of sunny, expressive contributions from guest leader, Zoe Byers.

Mena and the orchestra navigated the subtle stylistic shifts of the second movement well, from the light, airy minuet through more intense triple passages and back, even if sometimes the contrasts in intensity of dotted rhythms got muddled. Some ideas in the third movement didn’t quite pay off, the off-stage snare drum failing to sound genuinely distant. Although the posthorn sounded genuinely far away, this was marred by a lack of very detailed expression and some ensemble issues. These flaws were further highlighted by some vibrant, highly detailed technical playing, particularly from trumpeters Jamie Prophet and Gary Farr and from the high woodwind sections.

The grief of mankind reaches its dramatic climax in the fourth movement, Mahler’s setting of the climax of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. The role of intoner-in-chief fell to Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill. A gorgeously resonant “O Mensch!” began her contribution stunningly, although Mena and Cargill’s ideas on rubato differed. Mahler’s setting here is masterful, sustaining a solemnity through murmuring basslines and hushed woodwinds. Cargill is an experienced performer of Mahler and she certainly captured the dramatic stasis the movement requires.

Cargill was joined by the female voices of BBC National Chorus of Wales and the Choristers of Gloucester Cathedral for the fifth movement. Hats off to the choirs: both had a bright, balanced and fresh sound. The Welsh Chorus prides itself on its strong student membership from nearby Cardiff University and Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and it was this youthful timbre that found a home in the setting of lines from Mahler’s collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The brightness and clarity given to the devotional text further illuminated the irony in Mahler’s previous setting and dedication to the ideas of Nietzsche, alongside the ringing bells and angelic choruses.

The final movement is an exhibition in the lyricism Mahler taps into in compositions contemporary to the Third’s writing. “What Love tells me” is the original programmatic title, and it is at this point where the writing is at its most personal, marked Langsam, ruhevoll, empfunden (slow, peaceful, with feeling). Could Mena have taken a few more risks, or even indulged a little more in Mahler’s attempts at transcendence? A quieter opening would have allowed an even more emphatic close. However, what Mena created by the end was still a magnificent, declamatory ending to be very satisfied with indeed.