Aptly for Manchester, as they are an emblem of the city, Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, a piece inspired by bees, filled Bridgewater Hall with the wistful and vivid sound of swarming insects. Conductor Ben Gernon ensured that a sense of fun prevailed, with a measured tempo preventing any essence of mania in this evocative soundscape. Every layer of sound had crystal-clear clarity, even in the denser textures, and this set the tone for an exceptionally high level of musicianship for the evening. This score requires a vast orchestra with three harps. Gernon’s balance of the orchestra was so astute that even when playing together the harps were perfectly balanced against each other, with the wash of Debussian sound allowing each one to be appreciated.

Ben Gernon © Petr Kadlec | Czech Philharmonic
Ben Gernon
© Petr Kadlec | Czech Philharmonic

Imogen Cooper replaced another Alfred Brendel pupil, the advertised Paul Lewis. Like their teacher and other notable interpreters, everyone finds something different in Mozart’s piano concertos. The mature concertos have a fragile surface of simple joy and showmanship which conceals a genius with a dark and troubled soul. This was echoed in the Tchaikovsky symphony completing this carefully considered programme.

Premiered in 1786, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25 in C major dates from the same time as his 38th symphony. Like Mozart’s other famous C major K.467, the concerto is full of strong statements, majesty and searching questions, combined with all the drama of his late operas. Cooper and Gernon gave a thoughtful performance. The first movement started with a somewhat full-bodied string sound with gentle vibrato, a sound not terribly in vogue for Mozart. When Cooper entered, the magic happened, her sound contrasting with that of the orchestra akin to the coming together of two hugely different flavours one wouldn’t necessarily think of matching, but that when combined provide the most delicious sensation. The first movement was full of grandeur and the cadenza flowed from Cooper's fingers effortlessly; the second was full of operatic drama, blemished horns only momentary breaking the spell; the third slightly leisurely, but full of colour and the most stylish phrasing. Cooper's careful pedalling ensured left-hand phrasing and articulation was clear and shaped throughout, her tone clear and the balance between the hands illuminating the different textures of Mozart’s keyboard writing.

Speaking of the concerto Cooper said that if she “could only have one [Mozart] concerto, this would be it…” With the gifts of vision and ability to communicate she possesses, this admiration for the piece came across in every single note. A warm embrace between Cooper and Gernon seemed to be testament to the maturity, poise and elegance they both brought to this sophisticated and deeply insightful performance giving us a musical glance into Mozart’s soul.

Written in 1888, just twenty years before the Stravinsky that opened the concert, Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 4 in F minor was a world away in emotion and colour. Despite a considerably more modest orchestra than the Stravinsky, this performance was more vivid than anything else in the programme. The opening had a prolonged sense of foreboding terror in the brass fanfare, and certainly took the sostenuto of the tempo indication literally. This gave way to a dark and anxious string episode. As the movement progressed, Gernon steered the rollercoaster of dejected emotion over some turbulent highs and intense lows, each accentuated by some carefully considered rubato. The second movement, Andantino in moda di canzona, was deeply emotional, with a sense of yearning pulling one further into melancholia, similar to the Mozart slow movement.

The Tchaikovsky's symphony was extraordinary. The range of dynamics from the 60-strong string section was remarkable, with a clarity and sparkle like the finest diamonds. The sense of searching one’s soul that had prevailed through the preceding two movements was still evident here, desperately seeking peace. With just a small intake of breath separating the last two movements, a hugely vivid and exciting opening to the Allegro con fuoco set us off on the homestretch. The sense of questioning and searching prevailed until the return of the opening material of the first movement: now the music found its resolution. With a sense of satisfaction, Gernon romped to the end in a blaze of triumphal glory. The programme noted Tchaikovsky’s thoughts on this work: “…there is not a single note in the symphony which I did not feel deeply”. And there certainly wasn’t a note Gernon and the BBC Philharmonic didn’t feel either. Without a doubt this was the most invigorating and polished performance of the piece I’ve heard live. Laden with passion and emotion, this interpretation was terrific in every sense of the word.

*****