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Grieg, Kalevi Aho, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov: Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Juanjo Mena (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 26.3.2011 (MC)

Last Spring

Kalevi Aho: Symphony No.15

Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme

Rimsky Korsakov: Scheherazade

At the pre-concert talk we were told how the touring BBC Philharmonic Orchestra was caught up in the recent Japanese earthquake. It seems that they only had their instruments returned from the airport the day before this concert owing to high radiation readings. Out of respect for those who sadly lost their lives in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami the orchestra played Last Spring, Grieg's short elegiac lament for strings a nd the second of his Elegiac Melodies.

Conducted by Juanjo Mena the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra's chief conductor designate, the concert was being recorded by BBC Radio3 for future broadcast. Forming part of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra's Journey Through Music scheme this was one of a series of concerts aimed at giving young people a taste of orchestral music.

In terms of repertoire I'm not sure what younger audience members would have made of the opening work, Kalevi Aho's Symphony No.15 (2009/10). Receiving its world première performance here the symphony was a joint commission with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. This substantial score lasting just over half an hour in performance has been described by Aho as 'the apotheosis of the dance' in deference to the influence of Beethoven'sSeventh Symphony. Aho has subsequently given descriptive titles to the symphony's four movements: Nebbia (Mist/Haze); Musica bizzarra (Bizarre music); Interludio (Interlude) and Musica strana (Strange music). Immediately approachable, the symphony holds the attention and contains much impressive writing. Predominantly uplifting in character the score just bubbles along with remarkable reserves of energy. My enduring impression is of a highly rhythmic and colourfully exhilarating score, often with an exotic Middle Eastern character and punctuated with liberal use of percussion much of which is for hand drums. It must have been an emotional occasion for Kalevi Aho who at the conclusion of the score came onto the stage to enthusiastic applause.

It is always good to hear cellist Alban Gerhardt in performance. Radiating calm assurance Gerhardt makes his playing seem so effortless. Written in 1876 Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme is a much loved score, a staple of the cello repertoire. A homage to Mozart the score of masterly and elegant construction commences with a short Rococo style dance theme similar to a gavotte with seven variations. Gerhardt displayed complete command with playing of eloquence and refinement reinforced with an inherent concentration. Eminently suited to the acoustics of the hall the soloist's Mateo Goffriller cello has a lovely mellow tone. I enjoyed the passage for the golden horn solo over pizzicato strings that commenced the score. Lovely yet sombre the third variation was a highlight, as was Gerhardt's practised excellence of the final variation Coda. It's easy to see why this Tchaikovsky score is such a favourite with soloists and it certainly made an appealing and undemanding listening experience for the audience. Somehow it felt that Gerhardt needed something meatier to get his teeth into, such as Prokofiev's comparative neglected Sinfonia Concertante (Symphony-Concerto).

Compatriots Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov may have embodied different schools of composition in Russia but their friendship was a close if an often uneasy one. Certainly their primary compositional commonality is their immense talent for orchestration. A perennial favourite, Rimsky Korsakov's symphonic suite Scheherazade (1888) overshadows all of his other orchestral works in the concert hall. The composer was inspired by the wondrous Arabic folk tales of the One Thousand and One Nights (or The Arabian Nights) as related by the enchanting Sultana Scheherazade. To serve as a guide to the composer's thoughts the four movements or Tales were given thematic titles. Maestro Mena certainly showed his mettle in Rimsky-Korsakov's kaleidoscopic and intoxicating Persian odyssey. Though not an overly demonstrative conductor, the unflappable and supremely confident Mena gets on with the job communicating in his unpretentious way. The key here is to generate significant reserves of energy and provide mountains of warm colours without fear of overloading to any dangerous degree. Underpinning the spicy score the string section, especially the low strings, were as durable as any Arabian dhow with the high strings providing a light and smooth magic carpet ride. To my ears the luxurious woodwind was as tightly woven as any high quality Persian rug. With the ripe pungency of an Arabian bazaar the brass exuded a wonderful aroma. There was still time to salute impressive individual contributions with the leader sensitively depicting the heroine Scheherazade while the sparkling oboist, clarinet and bassoon principals wore only the finest quality Persian slippers. Without having to resort to rubbing a magic lamp for assistance maestro Mena, in total control, impressively punched out Rimsky-Korsakov's vivid climaxes.

Under Juanjo Mena the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra is in safe hands. The audience cheered an often delightful and most rewarding concert.

Michael Cookson


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