Saturday night’s concert began with an unexpected comedy sketch, slightly reminiscent of Mr Bean. Conductor Juanjo Mena came on stage, stared at the score on his podium with some consternation and then departed with it, having signalled to the audience it appeared to be the wrong piece. Having returned clutching a new, and clearly different work, he was immediately followed by a slightly desperate concert manager and given back the original, and indeed, correct score. It would have been very difficult to perform either Luke Bedford’s mammoth new work Instablity or Bruckner’s Mass in F Minor with an orchestra of Schubertian proportions and no choir, thus the confusion was itself quite confusing.

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlburg

Correct score in hand, the BBC Philharmonic launched into Schubert’s Fourth Symphony (dubbed “Tragic” by the composer). The opening fortissimo chord had little chance of making much impact in the Royal Albert Hall but the intent was clear nonetheless. The orchestra gave a very clean reading of the work, the strings leading with an appealing combination of precision and warmth. Tempi were nicely judged and Mena didn’t overindulge in the central Andante, which made the work feel in proportion. Occasionally important details were lost, such as the leaping fifths in the flutes which punctuate the final cadences at the end of the theme in the finale. It often seemed that Mena was enjoying himself more than the audience, his gestures made sense, but the response from the orchestra was not always forthcoming and ultimately the space overwhelmed the piece.

In stark contrast, Luke Bedford’s Instability, enjoying its world première, wisely seemed written with the hall’s challenging acoustics in mind. The work was dominated by a recurring, deep organ pedal, which verged on a growl and was tremendously powerful and unsettling. A variety of soundworlds punctuated an ever-collapsing melodic idea that was passed in snatches through the orchestra. These orchestral textures gave the work a structure that was immediately engaging. Bedford’s bold use of percussion played a central role in this, with the music alternating between bold, startling orchestral stabs dominated by the bass drum, to an ethereal, yet unnerving, combination of bells, glockenspiel and gong. Fleeting moments of tonality emerged nervously from the orchestral sections, giving the work a sense of focus; the instability of the work’s title seemed a lot clearer with the sense that a precarious version of stability was trying desperately to emerge.

Orfeón Pamplonés, a large amateur choir from Pamplona made an impressive Proms debut in Bruckner’s magisterial Mass no. 3 in F Minor, overcoming the challenging juxtaposition between the weighty orchestral sound and the need to dispatch the complex, often fugal, vocal lines with clarity. The orchestra is key in bringing the work to life, and the playing was engaging, and the textures generally clear. The work lost momentum now and again in the weightier moments, and solo contributions were mixed.

A sense of spirituality and awe is essential for a performance of this work to be truly convincing, otherwise the simplicity of the Benedictus and Sanctus can underwhelm. This performance came close, but lacked a satisfying, overall cohesion. The entire concert could also be characterised as such; there was an overriding feeling that plumbing the depths of Bruckner after the mental work of Bedford’s new work was a little too taxing for orchestra and audience alike.