Led by its Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena, the BBC Philharmonic delivered a polished and sure-footed performance of Magnus Lindberg’s exotic Clarinet Concerto followed by Shostakovich’s epic Leningrad Symphony. Clarinettist Mark Simpson proved to be something of a revelation in the concerto. Lindberg makes incredible demands of the soloist and if ever there were someone who could reasonably claim to be the Paganini of the Clarinet, then Simpson might be just the man.

Mark Simpson performing Magnus Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Mark Simpson performing Magnus Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Akin to taking a journey through a musical kaleidoscope packed with shifting landscapes and a steady stream of new tonal colours, this is the kind of music that, had Claude Debussy lived into the 1920s or the 1930s might have conceived. The entire canon of virtuosic demands was showcased here: trills against a backdrop of impressionist and, at times, avant-garde sounds; glissandos (playing like a distant rehearsal to the opening of Rhapsody in Blue) and one sparkling cadenza after another.

There appeared at times to be nothing that this hugely talented soloist could not do – in particular, the solo near the end of the concerto was quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a classical music stage before... forget air guitar, this was air clarinet! It begged the question of how Simpson was managing his breath control let alone avoiding even one misplaced note or slip. Highly impressive. Lindberg's concerto is not without a sense of humour; at times, the writing called for the clarinettist to produce some pretty unorthodox sounds – the depth and range of the that instrument’s capabilities probed to the ultimate degree.

A note of credit must also go to the orchestra and their leader; journeying through this jazzy fantasy world requires precision and exactitude. Mena is not a particularly demonstrative conductor, preferring to make subtle and understated movements with his baton, however every nuanced glance transmitted its unique message and resulted in the desire response. A brief encore aptly illustrated Simpson's technical capabilities again, transforming the sound of his instrument more into a saxophone than a clarinet.

After the interval, Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony was performed with strength and vigour, but also empathy and delicacy where called for. Mena opted for a strong and strident tempo with which to open the proud theme Shostakovich uses to demonstrate the Russian mentality in the face of impending danger. The BBC Phil's pristine sound continued from the first half, structured and unified, whilst the woodwind section was particularly well-enunciated.

Special mention to the bassoonists whose explorations out of the first theme led all the way to the wistful solo violin, providing an image of nostalgic innocence as the old order was about to be swept away by the invasion theme. The orchestral wall of sound that came later in the gigantic crescendo created a palpable sense of the terrifying spectre of advancing Nazi troops. Mena led the players expertly from pin-drop silence through to crashing chaos. 

The baton is passed around the orchestra as the troops inch ever closer, forming a ring around the beleaguered city. The theme continues to take on an ever more nightmarish theme, truly menacing. It was a sobering thought to imagine what the original performance must have been like, the assembled group of musicians half starved as the authorities ordered to blast the music through loudspeakers at the encircling enemy. The message from Shostakovich quite clearly: “this is a city which cannot be conquered.”

Although the music swelled to an ear-splitting climax, there was no loss of important detail.  Particularly impressive was the measure of control around dynamic markings, Mena able to sustain a barely audible whisper all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum.

The work reached its grand, defiant firework of an ending in C major. A sense prevailed throughout the final movement that an exploration of all the various tenets of the human condition are by turns evaluated, examined on merit before being discarded along the way to the end of the journey. There was little to dispute in this account of a great work and, as the blaring conclusion passed with a real bang, a fitting tribute was afforded to the memory of all those who suffered during this dark episode of history.