sun 20/09/2020

BBC Philharmonic, Wellber, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - making music magic | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Philharmonic, Wellber, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - making music magic

BBC Philharmonic, Wellber, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - making music magic

The new chief shows a different way of doing Beethoven

Rabbits out of the hat: Omer Meir Wellber, chief conductor of the BBC PhilharmonicFelix Broede

Omer Meir Wellber, who once used to do magic with music for children, pulled a whole set of rabbits out of the hat in his reading of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony on Saturday. Others may make the work's rhythms and melodies alluring through the sheer forward momentum of a steady beat. Not Wellber.

Omer Meir Wellber, who once used to do magic with music for children, pulled a whole set of rabbits out of the hat in his reading of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony on Saturday. Others may make the work's rhythms and melodies alluring through the sheer forward momentum of a steady beat. Not Wellber. The most striking thing about the first two movements, as he directed them, was that the contrast of mystery and vigour embodied in the shapes and dynamics of the music’s rhythm, melody and harmony was also represented in its speed – or rather, speeds.

It's a way of conducting Beethoven symphonies that’s been out of fashion for a long time. Probably not since the days of big orchestras playing his music as if Wagner wrote it has that kind of drama been found there. And Wellber doesn’t go for their kind of sound: he had fewer than 40 strings for the whole of his programme in the joint Philharmonic / Hallé Beethoven series at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. Yet his approach to tempo is also one that Wagner himself might have approved of – varied according to the colour of the music, taking its cue from the accents and weight of the sounds. It could easily catch off balance an orchestra that thought it already knew everything about Beethoven, but this one was with him all the way, eyes glued to his hands and responding in detail to his direction.

There was much to enjoy in it other than his flexible pacing – some wonderful skirling of close-up low notes from horns and double basses, huge crescendos and contrasts of power in the Adagio, and varied and subtle phrasing in the third movement, which was all clarity and suavity in its outer sections (but, again, highly contrasted in the trios). And the finale was, if anything, the real scherzo of the piece, with cheeky-sounding juxtapositions of extreme weight and lightness, and attractive articulation from all the strings (led by Yuri Torchinsky) and the adroit wind players.

Rachel FrenkelIf the objective of a chief conductor is to make his orchestra talked about, then Wellber will have done that already in only his second Bridgewater Hall main series concert with the Phil in this inaugural season. Can someone do something different with a Beethoven symphony in this year, when everyone’s at ’em again and again? Yes, they can.

The main event was after the interval: the Mass in C, with the Dresdner Kammerchor, Wellber’s colleagues from the city where he’s principal guest conductor at the Semperoper, bringing their own character to the performance. With 43 of them, I counted, on stage just behind the orchestra, it was a big, warm sound with a lot of pure soprano tone: in the Bridgewater Hall (with the Marcussen organ’s underpinning, discreetly but effectively played by Darius Battiwalla) it was expansive rather than intimate, providing the operatic quality which is there to be found in the music.

A lot depends on the chorus here – which was why we all heard a low C from the bassoon (duly marked by just a tiny swishing of feet from somewhere) before the soloists walked on the platform: their basses open up proceedings before anyone else joins in, and they did it with rock-solid security.

In fact the entire Kyrie movement was one of confidence in coming absolution, and the Gloria a real shout of praise for most of its progress, with more big contrasts of power, and only a few moments of anxiety in the last “miserere nobis” before a jolly romp through the final fugato.

Emily DomThe soloists revealed their colours in the course of the movement: Luis Gomes definitely a lyric tenor rather than stentorian, but none the worse for that in this music; Evan Hughes on the baritone side of bass-baritone but blending with him; Rachel Frenkel (pictured above by Marco Borggreve) strongly projecting in the alto register; and Emily Dorn (pictured left) effortlessly soaring above the texture in the soprano’s best moments.

There was energy in Wellber’s reading of the Credo, “Deum verum de Deo vero” stabbed out as joyful affirmation, and by the time the final aspiration to eternal life was in view, the tempo was hectic indeed with the sheer thrill of it.

Contrast came, as Beethoven intended, in the Sanctus, a gentle vision of holiness at first, with the chorus singing in lovely, mellow style, and the soloists rising to the challenge with them in the long and leisurely Benedictus – it’s a tender, quasi-pastoral (even quasi-Pastoral if you think of the Sixth Symphony) piece of writing, and the combined quartet’s sound was unusual, but effective. The Hosannas, as by now expected, were fast and furious, and then the Agnus Dei, with the clarinet and solo horn pouring healing balm upon the choral texture, provided a nearly operatic-style ending that itself answered the prayer of “Dona nobis pacem”.

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