The BBC Philharmonic delivered playing of great character and robust originality under Juanjo Mena in this Sunday evening concert of popular Bohemian works. The challenge of finding stimulating perspectives on works as frequently programmed as Má vlast and the New World Symphony is a considerable one. Mena steered clear of any radical interpretations of either piece, but paced each to perfection and gently encouraged the considerable elegance of his orchestra’s sound to blossom. This was evident from the wonderfully fluid opening moments of Vltava, the most familiar component of the Má vlast cycle. Here the flutes and cellos swam with immaculate ensemble and fluidity of sound before a relatively brisk undertaking of the sweeping principal theme. The central festivities were crisp and bustling, before the gleaming main theme emerged again, pouring forwards jubilantly.

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlburg
Sandwiched between the evening’s two well-worn works was Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2, written with the composer at the peak of his powers in 1938 (the First Concerto was written some 30 years earlier). As the second Bartók concerto appended to a generally crowd-pleasing programme in two weeks, tonight’s performance made another intelligent and intriguing contribution to the concert as a whole.

German-Italian violinist Augustin Hadelich played with both impressive technical facility and admirable musicianship. The enormous energy of his playing was mirrored by the orchestra, and his active physical presence on stage made an obvious show of his engagement with the orchestra. He delivered much of the concerto with knees crouched, at times in the first movement giving the impression of an impassioned street fiddler. In the slow movement he found a more songful outlook, complemented by elegant tone and warm orchestral accompaniment.

The finale was driven along at considerable pace by Mena (as indeed was the whole programme), although great care was given to the capricious leaps from industrial percussion to comical waltzes. It was a thrilling climax, to which Hadelich’s encore, the Andante of Bach’s Violin Sonata no. 2, was a particularly excellent digestif.

Mena was similarly demanding in tempi for Dvořák’s New World Symphony, driving the three quick movements at breathless speeds. He was persistently faithful to the score, eschewing conventions such as tempo pull-backs for the first movement flute solos, although there was no exposition repeat. The strings responded to the brisk pace with playing of wonderful lightness and clarity of sound. They were similarly airy in the Largo, maintaining a sense of flow to accompany Gillian Callow’s beautifully intoned cor anglais solo, and later seemed to play with all the weight of a breath of air at the end of the movement.

After a vigorous scherzo with a pleasingly bucolic trio, the finale was full of far more overt displays of muscle. The towering opening theme, directed in a broad two-in-a-bar, led directly into a sweetly-played clarinet solo at full tempo. The later reappearance of this clarinet theme came with a subtle indulgence of a more relaxed tempo, but it was the dashing, thrilling climax to the symphony which made this a memorable performance. 

***11