With murky machinations in the low strings and piercing, vivid woodwind solos above, Harrison Birtwistle’s Night’s Black Bird and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major have surprisingly similar openings. And both received similarly fine performances last night from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Juanjo Mena in a Prom in which the darkest, most nightmarish passages of music were often the most compelling, as most apparent in the strong, sinister Mahler Fifth that concluded the evening.

Alexandre Tharaud © Marco Borggreve
Alexandre Tharaud
© Marco Borggreve

All three pieces, though, have their darker moments – especially the Ravel, whose outlook is perhaps the least consoling. Even in this jazzy rendering from Mena and the excellent soloist Alexandre Tharaud, it is the melancholy of the piece that sticks, Ravel’s dark harmonic colouring and flattened modes undercutting the rhythmic liveliness. Tharaud handled the long solo passages with lyrical sensitivity and great dexterity, the physicality of the part almost forcing him off his stool on a number of occasions – though in general the orchestral passages sounded more gripping, more vital. That said, the Albert Hall acoustic is perhaps at its least forgiving when dealing with low-register piano music, and I felt I was perhaps getting only a fraction of what Tharaud had to offer. His encore, a Scriabin prelude, also for the left hand, was played with similar panache.

The melancholy of Birtwistle’s 2004 piece comes as less of a surprise than that of the Ravel. In part inspired by John Dowland’s perennially fascinating song In Darkness Let Me Dwell, Night’s Black Bird is a stern, eloquent portrait of the night and the strange noises that lurk within it. The chirping, birdsong-esque piccolo solo from Jennifer Hutchinson was just the first of many exemplary wind solos, which burnished an eloquent performance from Mena’s players, aptly capturing the piece’s sombre mood. This is just the start of the 2014 Proms’ focus on Birtwistle, as well as his contemporary Peter Maxwell Davies, both of whom turn 80 this year – prommers can expect to become well accustomed to Birtwistle’s dark, dense soundworld, though with luck this prolonged exposure will also be an opportunity to look within the uniformity of his music and see the ever-shifting shapes that it conceals.

The subtlety of both Birtwistle and Ravel’s pieces stands in some contrast to Mahler’s Fifth, which is often astonishingly direct – not least in its opening trumpet tattoo, played here with a sardonic edge by Jamie Prophet. Mena’s intelligent reading emphasised the visceral nature of the piece, the first two movements veering nightmarishly from one idea to the next. The third movement was more problematic structurally: Mena’s interpretation seemed to emphasise its very episodic nature, meaning that it lacked a sense of cohesion, and the bucolic, Ländler-like sections were in general a little less gripping than the frequent descents into madness. And while containing some impressive playing, the fourth and fifth movements lacked the edge-of-seat thrill of the first two – the Adagietto fourth, of course, should be the sensitive, beating heart of this symphony, but it was a little unmoving here, perhaps a touch too slow, and missing the warmth it needed.

Much orchestral excellence, however – not just Andrew Budden’s horn obbligato in the third movement, for instance, but the whole of the horn section, and indeed the whole of the brass – elevated this performance to the top bracket, and ensured that the BBC Philharmonic (perhaps underused in the CBeebies Prom) had ample opportunity to prove their talent. Two more Proms are to come from them, including one featuring Peter Maxwell Davies’ Fifth Symphony – having heard them here, I’d recommend that one strongly.