BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

By coincidence, both the Hallé's and the BBC Philharmonic's new seasons are loosely based on the abundant themes of nature and mythology.

The BBC Philharmonic's opening concert in the Bridgewater Hall began with Judith Weir's Forest, a fresh-sounding blossoming of musical foliage from a skeletal introduction on four violas. Through a shrubbery of thematic development these initial tendrils then spread to a quartet of horns, and gradually, triffid-like, throughout the orchestra.

To suggest that these instrumental stirrings represent shafts of light piercing the dimness of overgrown thickets may seem a little fanciful, but the composer herself suggests that the furtive string chords that end the work are evocative of some fairy-tale woodland scene. Forest may be a short work, but it made a distinct impression as a preface to Mahler's massive Third Symphony.

Exciting though aspects of his interpretation of the Mahler undoubtedly were, the orchestra's dynamic new principal conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, hasn't yet quite grasped the full extent of Mahler's sprawling celebration of life, "physical and spiritual, sensual and animal". Of course, it takes time for any reading of this complex and enigmatic work to mature. This is especially true of the colossal first movement, with its abrupt changes of tempo and its themes - primordial craggy hues for Pan, trilling pastoral evocations, and grotesquely strident march music.

Noseda could never be accused of delivering a performance with anything less than maximum efficiency and extrovert enthusiasm. But his response to Mahler's instrumental colours and textures was strangely lacking in any real dramatic imperative in the first part. To create and experience moments of release, after all, there needs to be sufficient tension out of which they spring.

The characterisation of the delightful Viennese scherzos in the second part was lacking in charm - schmaltzy, even - and the offstage posthorn in the third movement was curiously unengaging in its surreal interruptions. Up to this point, it felt as though we were some distance removed from the heights Mahler intended us to scale, emotionally and intellectually, in the symphony that he described as a mirror of the whole world.

But with the entrance of the mezzo-soprano Zlata Bulycheva - her deep vocal timbre colouring the mysterious Nietzschean lines, "O Man! Take heed!", the atmosphere changed and lifted. The ladies of the City of Birmingham Symphony and its Youth Chorus brought a radiant confidence to the fifth movement, but it was in the finale - "What love tells me" - that Noseda was at his most persuasive, conveying a rapt, intimate intensity in both the passionate hymn-like theme and the ecstatic coda.

Throughout the performance, the string playing emerged as impressively polished, the woodwind deliciously pointed and the brass uncompromisingly punchy. But it was in the last movement that the orchestra as a whole found its best form.

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