BBC Prom 18, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Mena, review: 'dubious'

Alexandre Tharaud
The Telegraph

By Ivan Hewett 

A muffled stroke on the bass drum; a throaty repeated downward slide in the depths of the double-basses, immersed in low rumbles and reverberations; faint sinister sounds of muted brass, as if heard off-stage...
These were the mysterious and enticing sounds that opened Wednesday’s Prom. They came from Night’s Black Bird by Harrison Birtwistle, a piece inspired by the melancholy of the Jacobean era, particularly John Dowland’s song “In darkness let me dwell.” Gradually the outlines of a slow, sad processional emerged, occasionally rent by outcries which quickly died, leaving behind a faint trace in the strings like musical scar-tissue.

This performance led by the BBC Philharmonic’s Chief Conductor, Juanjo Mena - and the first of several at this year’s Proms celebrating Birtwistle’s 80th birthday - was good on the slow, patiently circling aspect of the music, but the sudden violent seizures that cut across this felt muffled. One needs both, with equal vividness.

Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand starts at a similar depth, with its unfathomably low contra-bassoon melody crawling out of a depth of double-bass. But really we’re in a different world, tinged with nostalgia and jazz as seen from Paris, and it was clear both players and conductor felt at ease in this more human ambience.The build-up from that opening poses a tremendous challenge to the pianist, who has to strike a tone that’s noble and intimate at once. Alexander Tharaud pulled it off, and later in the cadenza found a wonderful range of colour and feeling.

That was where this Prom really came to life. In Mahler’s Fifth Symphony the energy sagged somewhat, thanks to Mena’s ponderous tempos. The opening funeral march was actually very striking, with the harsh, biting tone of trumpeter Jamie Prophet seizing us by the ears. But we needed a stronger counter-weight to that downward-dragging motion, particularly in the second movement, where the aspiring cello melody gives a clear opportunity for urgency.

The other problem was a certain dryness in the sound. Where were the ecstatically sad slides in the famous Adagietto? It felt like the lo-fat version of a piece which really ought to melt the heart.

Still, one must give credit where it’s due. The closing bars of the Finale, where Mahler can’t resist inserting a triumphal chorale (like a Mendelssohn finale on steroids) often sets my teeth on edge. Mena’s shrewd pacing of the preceding 20 minutes made this dubious denoument seem convincing.