BBC Philharmonic – Joy on a Saturday night

Pioro, Julien-Laferrière, BBC Philharmonic, Schwarz, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review – joy on a Saturday night


Robert Beale, The Arts Desk,


This was at first sight a somewhat ordinary looking programme for the BBC Philharmonic: Beethoven, Brahms … even Stravinsky doesn’t frighten a Saturday night audience in Manchester these days.

They come for a good night out and quite a lot of them applaud after every first movement – even more if they can (and that means they don’t consider themselves high-brow, which is always a good thing for classical concerts).

But the most notable thing was that there was an outbreak of affection and bonhomie which seemed to begin from the platform and spread out to the hall. Elena Schwarz was the originator and chief recipient of that: not only does she have a superb technical command of her job but she makes her music both relaxed and rewarding, and musicians and listeners like that. Not for nothing was she repeatedly showing a heartfelt reaction to their responses when she took her bows.

She earned respect with her debut programme with the BBC Philharmonic here a year ago, when precision and clear thinking were the hallmarks of a tricky world premiere and two big works both well away from the Viennese tradition. This time the music was mainstream but not without its challenges: the opener, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, gave conductor and players plenty to concentrate on. Schwarz has a beat that is clarity itself, and she counted them in at the opening and cued a multitude of entries to set everyone at ease. They responded with elegant wind solos and sweet, rich string tone (Zoe Beyers, now well ensconced as BBCPO leader, setting the style). The marching first movement combined rhythmic precision with a calm, swinging emphasis that did not neglect the lyrical qualities that are also there, with melody to the fore. The second had lovely poise in its ear-wormy slow-dance motif and delightful solo playing, and the third brought swagger and a touch of ironic pomposity, with that sense of swing again.

Soloists for the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello were Daniel Pioro and Victor Julien-Laferrière (pictured above). It was Pioro who played the solo in that concerto world premiere a year ago, and his richness of tone and masterly phrasing were shared and complemented by Julien-Laferrière’s sensitive and flawless playing. The mellow lyricism and warmth of this concerto could surely have had no better exponents to convey its soul: Julien-Laferrière’s double stopping sounds like two voices in duet, and the pair together made an effect like a full quartet.

The Philharmonic strings were down to around 40 for the piece, but with this conductor and leader that was a very full sound, and yet its power was held back with skilled restraint much of the time, just as the two soloists were content, at the right times, to melt into the background themselves and leave the limelight to others. It’s what playing this concerto is all about. The Andante was really a con moto rendering and lovely for it, and the Hungarian-flavour finale all incisiveness and bounce.

There was the same strings strength for Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6, and with modern timpani and, of course, all modern instruments generally, this was not designed to be “authentic” Beethoven. But it was very different in spirit from what until fairly recently was considered the traditional approach to the “Pastoral” symphony (I remember Günther Herbig doing this piece with the Phil with 60 strings and triple woodwind – the extras simply duplicating lines – and, strangely enough, the overall sound was not much bigger than on this occasion).

Schwarz’s opening Allegro was crisp and lively, alternating resonant tutti sound with point-of-bow whispers for terraced contrasts, not lingering over the return to the opening at the repeat but just getting on with it, and exploring the textures inventively, making the long-held notes sing, in the development. The ”Scene by the Brook” was classically enunciated, a tapestry of overlapping phrases with graded and effective dynamics, and wind solos shining like good deeds in an uncertain world. Beethoven’s “Merry Gathering of Country Folk” was alternately smooth-flowing and boisterous with almost a hoe-down quality, and the horns let rip with whooping enthusiasm. The Storm, it hardly needs to be said, was vivid, and the finale passionate and whole-hearted.

This Beethoven symphony has always been the one that appeals for sheer exhilaration, and with this performance Elena Schwarz has established her credentials, not just for stimulating the intellect, but as a bringer of joy.