Following his excellent Mahler symphony performances with the BBC Philharmonic over the last two seasons, Juanjo Mena turned his attention to the First Symphony, pairing it with Mendelssohn and Schumann at the Bridgewater Hall. In this reliably popular programme, the first surprise appeared in the very first bars of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, where Mena drew a profound level of expression from the strings in their rolling depiction of the Scottish sea. His beat was largely a very fluid two-in-a-bar, which gave a tremendous sense of weight to the opening cello figure. The broadness of his beat left plenty of room for close attention to the winds, whose long sustained notes were given strong character through bold dynamic shaping. The development towards the eventual climax brought a far more focused, furious intensity, in an impassioned portrait of the wild seascape.

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlburg

Pianist Stephen Hough was this concert’s link to the Philharmonic’s Mancunian Way season theme, having studied in the city. His account of Schumann’s Piano Concerto radiated a pleasing but obscure atmosphere, perhaps describable as a sort of coy smile. The exceptionally involved piano part was attended to with great care, neatly balanced against the orchestra in accompaniment and showier passages. Of the latter, the first movement’s cadenza was enormous and bold in outlook. In the quieter passages Hough did a fine job of drawing out subtleties such as a hidden line in the left hand. The ensuing Andantino, after some feathery light string playing at the outset, displayed a rich, warm and songful tone in the cello melody.

A sense of more open good spirits became apparent in the finale, the music still unfolding in a seemingly continuous line, like the Phantasie as which it began life, but with a progressing dramatic presence from Hough, in an admirable display of stamina. He was still applying great power to the left hand by the end, where joy poured forth from the music, receiving richly deserved his applause. He followed it up with a touching performance of one of Dvorak’s Songs My Mother Taught Me.

The opening of the Mahler was pleasantly dewy, though the difficult intonation of the woodwind/string combination took a few moments to settle. In the rest of the movement, Mena emphasised the broad-brush romantic sweep of the music, rather than any particularly youthful exuberance as the young Wayfarer set out on his journey. The development was slow and bleak to the point of anticipating the tragedy of the third movement, and so the movement’s climax, when it came, was quite a jolt, a sudden explosion of cymbals and brass. The horns, on outstanding form throughout the symphony, gave great exuberance to their series of whoops as the movement came crashing to a close.

The Ländler romped along with a solid forward drive and muscular presence from the low strings. In the trio, the violins enjoyed some characterful heavy slurring, before returning to the earlier dance with a bang. Mena, increasingly balletic on the rostrum, pushed the tempo forwards to quite a quick tempo by the end.

The slow movement never quite touched the level of tragedy it might have done. The opening was played by the entirety of the double bass section, rather than as a solo, making for a more diffuse and somehow less shocking sound with greater susceptibility to tuning problems. From here the music seemed to pass by without any particular depth of emotion, even the redemptive major key passage near the end being pushed through a little quickly.

The screaming eruption of the fourth movement could scarcely have been more brutal, however. The wild opening minutes were played with enormous energy, Mena unleashing an almighty noise from his large forces. The oboes and clarinets revelled in their ‘bells up’ passages, instruments often going well past the horizontal. The contrasting softer passages suddenly took on a far more heartfelt emotional weight. The lyrical romanticism of the first movement returned, but in such close juxtaposition with the blazing fury of the preceeding minutes it had a renewed level of meaning.

The ascent to the triumphant conclusion began quickly with a feeling of driving inevitability, and took off from there with an almighty injection of energy from Mena. It was almost too much, the new speed threatening very momentarily to derail the brass, but after quickly righting itself the exultant last stanza was a joy to hear. The horns, reinforced with an extra trumpet and trombone, stood as instructed, and the timpanists and bass drum gave the most thunderous of rolls to close the symphony magnificently. It was a superb end to an original and ultimately deeply stirring performance.