It is astonishing to think that a genuinely exciting piece written 69 years ago by a well-established composer has just been given its London première. This was the case for a wonderfully colourful and evocative piece by Alberto Ginastera, a key 20th-century Latin American composer and one of Argentina's most distinctive musical voices. Ollantay, a symphonic triptych based on Mayan legend, is laced with Latin rhythms and colours characterising the music of Ginastera's native Argentina, and depicts the confrontation between Ollantay (son of the Earth) and Inca (Son of the Sun).

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic showed from the outset that they were fully immersed in this music, and demonstrated very clearly their commitment in this thrilling and atmospheric performance. In the first movement, Mena painted the picture of Ollantay's landscape wonderfully, with the orchestra opening with a quiet pastoral theme before transforming subtly into shimmering and mysterious strings with declaratory brass and timpani disturbing and impressive in their punctuating statements.

In the strident second movement, the orchestra conveyed all the drive and aggression of the warriors of Ollantay preparing for war. Mena drew out of the orchestra the full palette of colours in Ginastera's imaginative score, and powered purposefully through the ritualistic, violent nature of this movement before merging into the third movement, in which Ollantay is defeated and dies. There were strains of mystery, uncertainty and tragedy in this movement, which Mena handled expertly, particularly in the uneasy lull towards the end when there was a brief glimmer of hope before the final terrifying blows released an eerie chord drifting into silence. We need more Ginastera.

Next up was the ubiquitous and versatile Steven Osborne, one of the most accomplished British pianists of his generation, in a dazzling performance of Britten's Piano Concerto. The thread of Russianness woven into this piece reflects Britten's fascination with Shostakovich, and Osborne's dynamic and thoughtful interpretation fully explored this by exposing the piano's “enormous compass, its percussive quality and its suitability for figuration”, just as Britten intended. There is an extravagance and exuberance in this concerto that Osborne exploited to the full, reflecting Britten's sense of release and freedom he was feeling at the time.

The BBC Philharmonic was wonderfully crisp, but tended to overpower the piano in many of the louder sections. The first movement ("Toccata") was energetic and virtuosic, and Osborne's presence was felt immediately, concocting a heady mix of light touches, powerful punches and a quite magical cadenza. Mena and Osborne skilfully captured Britten's quirkiness in the second movement, laying bare the composer's re-examination of the essence of a grotesque waltz tinged with nostalgia. The third movement ("Impromptu") had Mena complementing Osborne's reflective playing by drawing out a hint of melancholy and shaping some of the captivating swaying passages with just the right amount of lilt, whilst the march in the fourth movement saw both soloist and orchestra imposing a stomping military drive with satirical bite. Osborne was formidable and produced a bravura performance, but the balance issues caused by an over-enthusiastic orchestra drowning out the soloist in several places detracted slightly from an otherwise superb performance. In a total change of mood, Osborne's encore was the haunting "Oiseaux tristes" from Ravel's Miroirs.

Ever the supreme Lieder composer, Schubert was never short of a good melody. His final symphony, the majestic Symphony no. 9 in C major "The Great", was no exception, mixing melodic invention with a form and structure that paid more than a passing nod to Beethoven. It was also famously reported as unplayable by some orchestras due to its length and technical difficulty. Mena's interpretation of Schubert's symphonic swansong was a little disappointing. This had nothing to do with energy or technical skill, which were in abundance, but was all to do with pace. It was just too fast. The BBC Philharmonic was technically brilliant and Mena did instil an infectious vibrancy and drive, but the brisk pace particularly in the outer movements masked a number of important features, which meant that not all the voices could be heard and some of the phrasing, dynamics and harmonic changes were rather glossed over. Maybe it was all designed to give some sort of antidote to some of the more turgid renditions over the years.

Nevertheless, there were many rewarding moments, including a nicely flowing introduction and a crisp and lively Scherzo. The second movement was perhaps the highlight, with some lovely phrasing and wonderful sounds coming from all sections of the orchestra. "More haste, less speed" should have been the order of the day in this piece, but the magnificent orchestral playing and the ebullience of Mena and his sheer enthusiasm for the music did at least provide a quid pro quo for the ferocious, if somewhat dubious, pace.

***11