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Prom 57, BBCSO conducted by Semyon Bychkov
30 Aug 2016

Prom 57: Semyon Bychkov conducts the BBCSO

Thomas Larcher’s Second Symphony (written 2015-16) here received its United Kingdom premiere, its first performance having been given by the Vienna Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov in June this year. A commission from the Austrian National Bank for its bicentenary, it is nevertheless not a celebratory work, instead commemorating those refugees who have met their deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, ‘expressing grief over those who have died and outrage at the misanthropy at home in Austria and elsewhere’.

Prom 57, BBCSO conducted by Semyon Bychkov

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Elisabeth Kulman

Photo credit: Julia Wesely.


Larcher does not consider it a piece of programme music, though, and there seems no reason to doubt him. Or, to put it another way, if we can consider Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, the third work on the night’s programme, as a symphony, there is no reason why we should not this.

It certainly felt like a symphony, not just on account of its four movements, but also their character and their relationship to one another. The first movement opened with a sense of pent-up energy being released, in very fast, highly rhythmic music, that material alternating with slower passages, in which tension is maintained, perhaps even increased, by various means including bass pedals. Without being ‘process music’, musical processes were very much to the fore, both, it seemed in the work, and in the excellent performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Bychkov. Distorted - and sometimes not distorted - tonalities mapped out its space; they were not, perhaps, without nostalgia, but a nostalgia that did not shade into pastiche. A huge orchestral cry of agony - it was difficult not to think of the opening Adagio to Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, both with respect to similarity and difference - made its point, whether ‘programmatic’ or not. Henze, coincidentally or otherwise, sometimes came to mind too. A final descent left us wondering into what we were descending. The chorale-like opening to the succeeding Adagio inevitably brought Austro-German tradition once again to mind; for this really did feel like something akin to a ‘traditional’ slow movement, with a ‘traditional’ symphonic dialectic. Accordion and wind were often prominent, there seeming something to be fundamental about their timbres to the work. Vibraphone and piano duetting also caught the ear’s attention, likewise percussion more generally (as indeed in the first movement). Scalic movement in both directions was a particular concern too.

The third movement sounded not entirely unlike a post-Brahmsian scherzo, with a touch of Stravinskian rhythmic insistence (although not always). The strange repetition of a chord - heard 140 times, apparently! - paradoxically seemed to increase tension, as much as any increase in volume and/or tempo. Then, at the end, a strange little Austrian dance fragment (a Ländler?) suggested neo-Mahlerian affinity to and alienation from Nature. The slow introduction to the finale seemed both connected to and yet something that had moved on from the world of the slow movement. Chorale music again soon flowered. The fast ‘main’ section showed an analogous (perhaps) affinity with the first movement. Again, it proved highly rhythmical and especially concerned with musical process; perhaps even the material itself was similar. In essence, this was a ‘traditional’ moto perpetuo, which then dissolved into a slow coda, which clearly spoke of sadness, shading into desolation. Apparent resolution (disconcertingly close, to my ears, to the world of Arvo Pärt, bells and all) was, mercifully, questioned at the last.

Having spent the previous week or so in Bayreuth, I had the opportunity with the Wesendonck-Lieder, here in Felix Mottl’s familiar orchestration, to begin to ween myself off Wagner for a little while. There is nothing wrong with Mottl’s version, but I could not help wishing that Henze’s had instead been chosen; on the other hand, Mottl’s intimations of Strauss had their own logic in this particular context. Making her Proms debut, Elisabeth Kulman, always an admirable artist, proved a fine choice as soloist: the ‘instrumental’ quality to her voice adding, in a typically Wagnerian dialectic, to the blend of words and music.

‘Der Engel’, opening, sounded very much as a Lied, as it should, even if one with undeniable ‘operatic’ connections. Tristan und Isolde was inescapably close at times, but not repressively so. Kulman’s word-led approach here and elsewhere reminded us of Wagner’s priorities here (not so in Tristan, of course). The angelic, almost Straussian quality to the orchestra was judged to perfection by Bychkov and his players. ‘Stehe still!’ had a different character: more dramatic, with vocal delivery taking us closer to the world of Die Walküre, never more so than in the first half of the final stanza, eye drinking blissfully from eye, and so forth. (Think of Wotan and Brünnhilde, if you will.) Bychkov took his time, quite rightly, and the conclusion proved properly radiant. ‘Im Treibhaus’ took us to Tristan-land proper, yet still with an element of distance; this is a song with its own concerns, not an excerpt. Kulman’s vocal colouring proved just the thing, very much with its own instrumental quality, as mentioned above. There was some especially wonderful viola playing - both solo and as a section - to enjoy too, likewise woodwind playing of Tristan-esque malevolence. ‘Schmerzen’ had a not un-Straussian autumnal glow to it, albeit on a smaller scale. Finally, ‘Träume’ returned us from autumn to a summer evening, its opening pregnant with Tristan-esque possibility, disciplined by the words and their implied structuring capability. Balm and eroticism proved two sides of the same Wagnerian coin.

Strauss’s giant symphonic poem had the second half to itself. Bychkov’s reading flowed beautifully, sometimes quickly indeed; at the same time, he was not remotely afraid to hold back where necessary. If the opening sections were perhaps a little too closely defined in themselves, that should not be exaggerated. The Night in which the work opens was clear, directed: no lazy murkiness here. The BBC SO’s strings sounded voluptuous indeed as our journey gathered pace. Off-stage, Tannhäuser-plus horns thrilled: not just ‘materially’, but with a Nietzschean sense that that materiality might also too be spiritual. This is a symphony, after all, for the Anti-Christ. The forest proved darkly inviting, Bychkov alert to the detail of its beauties, without ever lapsing into pedantry. A post-Mozartian grace to the meadows was especially welcome, offering both contrast to and context for the Zarathustra-like grandeur and ambiguity to the greatest climax of all. As darkness began to fall, before the storm itself, tension could be felt, just as, or almost as, in ‘real life’. So too could the force of the storm, albeit with the detachment of an audience member rather than an actual participant. It was, inevitably, though the Epilogue (Karajan once claimed to conduct the work for this alone) that brought tears to the eyes, exquisite woodwind playing an especial joy. It lingered, as it must: never quite enough, for Strauss is just as sure a dramatist here as in his operas. After which, the darkness into which his world was falling, as is ours.

Mark Berry

Prom 57: Thomas Larcher: Symphony No.2, ‘Cenotaph’ (UK premiere); Wagner (orch. Felix Mottl): Wesendonck-Lieder; Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64. Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Sunday 28 August.

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