A double bill of works from the turn of the last century was the ideal vehicle for Rafael Payare's Manchester debut. Bounding onto the Bridgewater Hall stage in dandyish dress and with a hairdo that instantly recalled Hendrix or the late Phil Lynott, he lost no time in establishing himself as an expressive podium presence, with the kind of gestures we nowadays associate with Otto Boehler's caricatures of Mahler. Yet there was no question of poses being struck or of Payare merely wishing to be seen to do what he was there to do: the results spoke for themselves and they were more than impressive.  

Rafael Payare © Luis Cobelo
Rafael Payare
© Luis Cobelo

Verklärte Nacht was the work that established Schoenberg's unique voice and though its tonality is atypical, it also makes it his most frequently peformed opus. The version for string orchestra that he made in 1943 expands the sound from the sextet original, to create an at times overpowering tone poem, a journey from darkness into light that makes explict what's only implied in Richard Dehmel's verse that inspired it. Payare dealt confidently with the almost riotous polyphony of the music, negotiating each of the five seamless sections of the work with an assurance and involvement that suggested this is a work close to his own heart. The strings of the BBC Philharmonic responded with zeal, at times creating a luxuriant bed of sound, at others tearing into the listener with an edge that could draw blood, with a particularly impressive moment at the beginning of the fourth section as Dehmel's lovers finally work towards an accommodation with each other. The radiant calm with which the work ends seemed all the more blissful for being hard-won and seemed to resonate with the audience, which shared a contemplateive pause before starting the ovations.  

Mahler's Fifth Symphony begins with a famously exposed rallying-call on the trumpet - thrillingly articulated here by Jamie Prophet – that leads into the conflict-prophecying Trauermarsch of the first movement. This was full of appropriate sound and fury but Payare gave it a coherence that has eluded some conductors and a sense of ensemble that is only achieved when the sections are listening to each other. For once, this music had a destination: this was a cortège that didn't just perform the act of mourning but also considered its meaning. The desolate tune passed between the trombones, trumpets and bassoons had rarely sounded more eloquent and descriptive of meaningless loss. This tension was mantained in a fittingly vehement second movement and didn't let up even in the difficult-to-judge Scherzo (where this symphony can sound like it's merely marking time) with the strings excelling in the pizzicato section.

Although Mahler planned this work in three distinct parts, the latterday prominence given to its most famous movmenet, the Adagietto, can make it seem like a movement surrounded by a symphony. Payare neutralised any danger of that with a clear-eyed reading that sidestepped sentimentality and merged seamlessly into a rolllicking finale that closed the performance with a jolt. No contemplative pause before the ovations this time: a triumphant evening for Payare and the BBC Philharmonic.