Alfred Hickling, BBC Philharmonic, Bridgewater Hall, Bruckner, cantata, Christmas, Fourth Symphony, Gloria in excelsis Deo, horn, Juanjo Mena, Latin, Manchester, Manchester Chamber Choir, Mass in B minor, organ, The Guardian
Bach and Bruckner are not often paired on the same program. Yet the composers had much in common: both were frustrated, provincial schoolteachers who happened to be world-class organists. And though Bach was a devout Lutheran and Bruckner was Catholic to the core, the BBC Philharmonic’s inspired pairing on 5 December 2014 at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester left no doubt that both worshiped the same God.
Among the two hundred of Bach’s church cantatas to have survived only one – Gloria in excelsis Deo (BWV 191), for performance on Christmas Day – has a text in Latin. Its concise three movements are familiar, as it recycles material from an earlier setting and was later reincorporated in the great, career-summation of the Mass in B minor (BWV 232). Juanjo Mena’s radiant performance with the Manchester Chamber Choir provided a crisp, contemporary account of the material Bach employed to serve Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet to come.
Bruckner worshiped Bach; and though his Fourth Symphony is a vast, mysterious and sometimes occluded work, the contrapuntal influence of countless hours grafting in the organ loft is present in every bar. Mena negotiated the switchback journey of giant crescendos and hushed chorales as if moving through a craggy, Germanic landscape in which devout pockets of worshipers are discovered nestling among the peaks.
It’s a moot point whether the work’s “Romantic” designation holds any real significance. Yet if this most chivalric of symphonies has a real hero it has to be the horn, whose burnished tone led the charge from the mysterious statement of the opening to the numinous solo that emerged from the hymn-like initiation of the finale. Mena prefers to become thrillingly absorbed in the moment rather than to stand back and appraise the structure; between movements he repeatedly stepped down and shoved the podium a few inches further forward, as if determined to envelop himself in the sound more completely.