Proms 2014: BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena, Albert Hall - music review

Alexandre Tharaud
The London Evening Standard

Juanjo Mena led this elegant performance by the BBC Philharmonic, which consisted of terrific sounds of Mahler and Birtwistle

By Nick Kimberley

Some concerts work through a common theme — music written in response to war, perhaps; some rely on stylistic continuity to provide coherence. Others succeed simply because the music is terrific.

This Prom belonged to the last category: there’s little to link Harrison Birtwistle, Maurice Ravel and Gustav Mahler yet they made good companions. Night’s Black Bird is typical Birtwistle, gnarled and ominous from its subterranean beginning to its unexpected, almost throwaway ending. Even the shards of light scattered by the flutes were more mournful than comforting.

So suggestive was the BBC Philharmonic’s performance under Juanjo Mena that the Beeb’s roaming camera, hovering and swooping to get the best view, briefly became the black bird of the work’s title.

Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during the First World War. Like the Birtwistle piece, the concerto begins in the depths, the rumbling contra-bassoonist making the most of his moments in the spotlight. Soloist Alexandre Tharaud delivered a reading that was elegant and unsettling, sulky and exuberant, the bluesy passages revealing a sardonic wit tinged with a pleasing hint of vulgarity.

To finish, Mena ensured that Mahler’s Fifth Symphony moved swiftly but with no sign of haste. Perhaps he sacrificed some of the music’s edginess but there was bite to the Scherzo’s high spirits, while the celebrated Adagietto, the “little slow movement” that is as beautiful as anything Mahler wrote, had its full measure of gravitas but was neither ponderous nor portentous.