Juanjo Mena concluded his season-long exploration of Stravinsky ballets with a sharp account of the most famous, The Rite of Spring, as part of a programme of unusually grand proportions.

BBC Philharmonic © BBC Philharmonic / Sussie Ahlburg
BBC Philharmonic
© BBC Philharmonic / Sussie Ahlburg

It was a hundred years ago this month that the Rite received its première in Paris. The Bridgewater Hall remained riot-free, unlike the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913, but the BBC Philharmonic nonetheless gave a very good account of Stravinsky’s vivid depiction of pagan rituals. The score’s rhythmic and tonal obscurities were handled with masterly precision throughout, which made for a very tight reading with a strong sense of danger coming from the relentlessly crisp ensemble. The work as a whole was constantly engaging, with the intensity never threatening to slip.

There were moments of shatteringly brutal violence, notably at the ends of the work’s two parts. Elsewhere, some of the more vigorous corners of the score might have been more aggressive, particularly in the early “Augurs of Spring”. When the full-blooded tuttis came, however, they were suitably terrifying, with Mena more animated than I have ever seen him. He rollicked through the “Games of Rival Tribes” and “Procession of the Sage”, bringing the latter to a mighty climax. There were very many outstanding individual performances, with the principal horn repeatedly shining. The bass drum player gave a heroic performance, with some full-bodied thumps powering the music through the Sacrificial Dance finale, which was swiftly followed by an animated reception.

Between the concert’s Stravinsky and Janáček, there were 43 brass parts to be had, but the revelation in the latter’s Sinfonietta of 1926 was the soft gleam of the brass section, rather than any brash impertinence. The work’s opening fanfare was far more lyrical than brutal, unfolding with impressive grace from the trumpeters standing in the choir stalls. The rest of the performance was coherently spacious, bringing to mind the Sinfonietta’s original purpose, for a gymnastics festival, more than its dedication, to the Czechoslovakian armed forces. There were some beautifully soft moments in the third movement, with fine solos from solo oboe and cor anglais. The military aspect of the music appeared only near the end, after a long crescendo to the brass re-entry, taking the music to a grand close.

The Janáček and Stravinsky both received outstanding performances, but between them Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G didn’t quite hit the same standard in its early parts. It is a work cut from a rather different cloth to the others in the programme, requiring a fraction of the forces and more of a chamber-music approach. The pared-down orchestra, though, remained widely spread on the stage, and perhaps as a result didn’t seem fully engaged early on in the concerto, with imbalances between string and winds masking some otherwise excellent playing. Things improved in the slow movement. Soloist Louis Lortie played with a superbly soft touch and elegance of phrasing which had been hinted at in the first movement’s less frenetic passages. Woodwinds took the melody from him with the greatest gentleness, and the ensuing extended solo for cor anglais was superb.

The third movement was taken at a blistering pace, and Mena seemed to bring out the comical wind solos far more attentively. E flat clarinet shone from the woodwinds, and the trombone’s outstanding yawning glissandi prompted several sniggers from the audience. Lortie maintained furious energy and good ensemble with the orchestra, all the while seeming to have tremendous fun as he bounced on his stool as if riding a circus horse. It was quite infectious, and he fully deserved his vociferous applause. It may have taken a few minutes to get going, but the concerto was superb thereafter.