Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 38: BBC Philharmonic / Mena @ Royal Albert Hall, London

13 August 2015

Juanjo Mena

Juanjo Mena

The two pieces featured in this BBC Philharmonic concert, under the baton of Juanjo Mena, were both highly intriguing, although one is far better known than the other. The less famous piece, John Foulds’ Three Mantras (c.1919-30), occupied the first half, having only been introduced to the Proms in 1998 by Barry Wordsworth, the conductor responsible for the first CD recording of the work a decade earlier.

The Mantras were originally the preludes to each act of a ‘Sanskrit’ opera, Avatara, which was originally conceived around 1919. Having subsequently despaired at ever completing it, the composer seems to have destroyed around 330 pages of its score sometime after 1930, with this trio of preludes being all that remains. On hearing these wondrous creations, one could spend much time speculating on, and lamenting, what exactly was lost, but together they create a piece that is very successful in its own right.

In keeping with the practice of Mantra Yoga, the Mantras have a meditative, almost hypnotic, quality, and Foulds described the three as representing terrestrial, celestial and cosmic visions respectively. The BBC Philharmonic gave a very balanced and effective performance, in which it became as easy to understand what was happening musically as it did to be spellbound by the entrancing rhythms and chains of perfect or augmented fourths. In this way, the several themes of Mantra I (of Activity), which begins with a stream of triplet rhythms and later contains a slower Romantic theme, were rendered with exceptional clarity, while Mantra II (of Bliss) saw a strong contribution from the upper voices of the London Symphony Chorus in their wordless expressions of sound.

Mantra III (of Will) was rendered with suitable barbarism and charge, but the orchestra still allowed us to appreciate that the music represents a strict modal study on a South Indian raga, using only seven pitches. In this way, as themes from the other mantras were layered on top of the present one, the ending felt suitably explosive and yet also perfectly pitched.

The second half of the concert was taken up with Messiaen’s longer and better known Turangalîla Symphony, which proved to complement the Foulds very well. This is not only because the word itself derives from Sanskrit, but because the approach that the orchestra employed to bring out so many interesting things in Three Mantras proved equally suitable for the Messiaen. Although the performance was full of energy and intrigue, there was nothing spiky or jagged about it. Rather, it was a beautifully balanced and rounded performance in which the charge brought to the piece was matched by equal levels of subtlety and precision.

Singling out highlights is difficult, not only because the standard of playing from start to finish was so high, but also because Mena did so much to render the piece as a coherent whole that every section played an equal part in telling the overall story. I was, however, particularly taken with the Chant d’amour 2, in which delicacy was brought to the opening scherzo-like theme and soloist Steven Osborne executed the piano cadenza brilliantly. No less impressive was the contribution throughout of Valérie Hartmann-Calverie, a world class proponent of the unusual and intriguing sounding ondes martenot, who also played the instrument in a performance of this symphony at the Proms with the BBC Philharmonic under Yan Pascal Tortelier in 1996.

The Joie de sang des étoiles similarly stood out for the assertive yet appropriate ways in which it developed the ‘statue’ theme initiated in the Introduction, and this movement epitomised the manner in which the BBC Philharmonic mastered the exploration of themes and ideas over the course of the symphony’s 75 minutes. The Final may have contained the music that everyone was humming as they emerged from the experience, but it was only one of ten movements that will live long in the memory.

This Prom will be available on BBC Radio 3 iPlayer for thirty days. For further information on this and all BBC Proms click here.

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Prom 38: BBC Philharmonic / Mena @ Royal Albert Hall, London