Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
The BBC Philharmonic's first concert after their return from Japan opened with an unscheduled performance of Grieg's Last Spring, a tribute to the victims of the devastation there a fortnight before. Caught in the earthquake, the orchestra was forced to cancel the last four dates of its tour and fly back to the UK earlier than planned, though their instruments, I gather, were only returned to the musicians last Friday after radioactive contamination was found in the packaging in which they were transported. Grieg's elegy, subsiding into a silence that went on for ever, has probably never sounded sadder or so heartfelt.
The evening remained otherwise unchanged, with Juanjo Mena conducting. Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme was sandwiched between the world premiere of Kalevi Aho's 15th Symphony and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, both of which, in different ways, look to the Middle East for inspiration. Aho's symphony opens with dissonant string clusters and tingling percussion suggestive of some cold northern European landscape, before Arabian percussion and sinewy melodies transport us to a world warmer and altogether more sensuous. It's a bit too long, though the in-your-face panache of the performance was consistently engaging.
Mena was perhaps at his most striking with Rimsky's Arabian Nights phantasmagoria, however. His approach was heavyweight, measured, serious. He thinks in spans, and his performance, taking its time to reveal its secrets, was strong on cumulative power and adult emotion: the third movement was frankly sensual where most conductors turn coy. Tchaikovsky's Variations were subject to the same considerate scrutiny, developing in subtlety and depth as they progressed. Alban Gerhardt was the soloist – expressive, unshowy and infinitely classy.
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