The first of two visits to this year’s Proms by the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic and their new Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena brought a compelling mix of Strauss, Saariaho and Sibelius.
The Royal Albert Hall might not have the world’s best acoustic, but provides considerable compensation in the form of its 9,997 pipe organ, the second largest in the country. This gave the double low C pedal at the start of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra a physical as well as aural presence, and brought enormous heft to the climax of the opening section. The rest of the performance was similarly involving, Mena’s interpretation alive to both the virtuosity and warmth of Strauss’ score. The quality of the orchestral response, especially the luminous playing for divided strings, was a demonstration of how Mena’s relationship with the orchestra has evolved since their appearance with at the 2011 Proms. This was an altogether impressive account, despite the surprising sight of Mena’s baton suddenly launching itself towards the first row of Prommers during a particularly energetic part of the Tanzlied.
Mena also brought warmth, as well as remarkable control of line and texture, to his interpretation of Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Unfortunately, the German soprano Anne Schwanewilms, normally an outstanding interpreter of Strauss, was not entirely comfortable during the performance, even dropping a couple of notes in Beim Schlafengehen. This inevitably marred an otherwise deeply meditative interpretation, with moving contributions from principal horn Jonathan Goodall and leader Yuri Torchinsky in the second and third songs.
Kaija Saariaho’s 2008 composition Laterna magica, here receiving its UK premiere, was inspired by the autobiography of the same name by film director Ingmar Bergman. Scored for full orchestra, including six horns, piano, celesta, harp and a well-stocked percussion section, the work is based on the concept of musical motifs moving at different speeds on top of a foundation of slow moving strings. An unusual feature of the work is that Saariaho has the woodwind players speak German words into their instruments at a number of points. Mena and the BBC Philharmonic gave an exemplary performance of the score and were joined on stage afterwards by Saariaho herself.
The concert concluded with a powerful performance of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony, Mena’s grip on the work’s structure matched by a strong feel for the composer’s soundworld. The contribution of the orchestra’s woodwind and brass sections was especially fine.