News & Reviews Older Newer

12th August 2019

Bachtrack

Alexander Hall

Try putting a quart into a pint pot and you are extremely unlikely to succeed. That has never stopped composers from wanting to encompass the entire world in works of modest duration. Mahler for one set out to do so; before him Schubert attempted to do much the same. This was the composer who elevated the humble song into an art form to be reckoned with, the Kunstlied. In more than 600 such works credited to his name his main collaborator was Johann Mayrhofer, whose long poem Einsamkeit with its twelve stanzas in ottava rima mode had the potential Schubert was looking for. Joy, love, rejection, misery, fun, horror and war – it was all there. Two centuries after its composition Detlev Glanert made an orchestral arrangement of this twenty-minute piece, which in this concert given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov was receiving its first performance at the Proms.

What struck me especially in Glanert’s realisation is how emotion is translated into rich and varied orchestral painting. At the outset, when the poet beseeches “Give me my fill of solitude”, the dark colours of low horns, clarinets and bassoons predominate. Later, when the talk turns to “a furious murderer of brothers”, the entire ensemble is deployed with sharp, brass-heavy Mahlerian anguish, making a key link with the evening’s main work. At the point where the poet’s friends have departed and “filled with the pain of longing, he looks heavenwards”, the warmth of a clarinet solo introduces a metaphysical dimension. However, these many sensitive details are quite secondary: it is the human voice that takes the listener through this vast emotional territory. The bright, silvery tones of the Austrian soprano Christina Gansch and her excellent diction – characteristics which made her an ideal soloist in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – allowed the vocal line to glitter and sparkle, not least when she sang of masked balls, magnificent palaces and noisy celebrations. Her secure lower register was confidently displayed when she emphasised the need to “Give me my fill of gloom”. Fine though her contribution was, I do have a minor quibble. There was a slight tendency to declaim, with little or no body language to support the narration.

Ideally, the titles of contemporary works should be programmatic or at least self-explanatory. Bychkov has championed other works by Glanert in his concert programmes and his Weites Land or “Open Country” (subtitled “Music with Brahms for orchestra”) provided the evening’s entrée. Apart from a wispy echo of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, there was not much of a recognition factor. If obvious links were to be made, these came in genuflections towards the main work: a plaintive oboe and trumpet flourishes that belong to the Mahlerian sound-world, with aching strings and angry pouting from trombones rendering essential anguish. This overriding sense of desolation might be seen as a metaphor for barren terrain, but without much clear direction in the music I struggled to find a real connection with either Brahms or the beauties of landscape.

For Mahler’s G major symphony Bychkov had boosted all the string desks, including a solid bass line of ten double basses. These forces delivered a big and powerful sound when required, but it is testament to Bychkov’s sensitive and judicious handling of the score that transparency was a hallmark of the reading, with only the reticence of the two harps a deficiency in the overall balance. Instrumental solos crowned the gleaming textures, with Igor Yuzefovich’s devilish fiddle in the second movement, Helen Clinton’s characterful oboe and a superb trumpet section led by James Fountain being particular delights.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is not all about heaven, nor a homage to Mozartian classicism, still less a misty-eyed positivity about the delights of the real world. It is sometimes overlooked that Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel was a work which Mahler himself regularly programmed. Not just merry pranks, but a sticky end too. The slaughtering of the oxen, leading “a lovely lamb to death” and the scalp-crawling picture of “the butcher Herod” waiting in the wings, all of which were movingly referenced by Gansch in her solos, are as tangible as any childlike representation of paradise.

Bychkov began briskly in no-nonsense fashion, the sleigh-bells signalling something akin to a peasants’ merrymaking, the rhythms confidently projected, the textures cleanly defined. But there was something more that Bychkov gave to the mix, something that I have often missed in other ultra-refined readings. This was a nervy excitability, a hint of the neurosis that characterises the later symphonies. Even more welcome was a sensuality Bychkov found in the score, a delight in the bracing fresh mountain air, the caress of walking through waist-high cornfields. In the finale he achieved a wondrously soft cushion of sound to support the bell-like clarity of the solo voice, the culmination of a most satisfying interpretation.

Read More

12th August 2019

Crescendo

Pierre Jean Tribot

The science behind the orchestration [Glanert’s Weites Land] is impressive, and was revealed as especially so thanks to Semyon Bychkov who allowed each of the BBC Symphony Orchestra desks to shine.

(…)

Christina Gansch’s performance [in Schubert’s Einsamkeit arranged by Detlev Glanert] was superb, full of finesse and elegance. Semyon Bychkov and the musicians of the BBC Symphony Orchestra seemed almost to float in their accompaniment.

(…)

In Bychkov’s masterful reading of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, the evening reached a new level of sublime. From the first few minutes, one could tell that the conductor and orchestra were in complete symbiosis both musically and through their commitment to the score.

Read More

11th August 2019

Detlev Glanert, born in Hamburg in 1960, came to music late, beginning his formal studies in composition only in his twenties – working with Hans Werner Henze for four years and then Oliver Knussen. A man of the theatre (fourteen operas to date), less immediately the concert stage, he’s carved a formidable reputation in Germany, as well as in Holland (“house composer” of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) and Britain. Inspired by Polanski’s Macbeth, his Third Symphony, commissioned by the BBC, was premiered by Osmo Vänskä and the BBC Scottish SO at the 1996 Proms. Theatrum bestiarum followed in 2005, introduced by John Storgårds (replacing Knussen, who is mistakenly credited on the Proms Archive).

Glanert is someone of palpable culture, craftsmanship and social conscience, valuing traditional Western values and disciplines. Harmony, tonality and the barline, an awareness of his Teutonic heritage and Romantic inheritance – music, literature, philosophy, the Old Masters – is central to his thinking. “I am not a composer who destroys the past to create his own world. I want always to know where I am coming from, where my roots are … That makes me free.” His ‘friends’ are rarely far away: Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler, Richard Strauss. Companions of communion.

Subtitled ‘Music with Brahms’, Weites Land (Open Country, 2013, revised February 2018) takes the first four bars of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony as its starting point, principally the opening pairs of gapped intervals (thirds, sixths) – B-G, E-C, A-F#, D#-B. An “aesthetic experiment … a composition about Brahms with him, he helping my hand”, Glanert says. “You hear two voices – mine gambolling around with [his] eight notes, and Brahms’s. And two levels of music, a double-hearing: one an atonal shift, the other tonal.”

Scored for double woodwind (additionally piccolo and contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings, Weites Land is audibly motivic in construction and internal relationships, its countenance predominantly lyrical and melancholic. Elements of variation and traces of passacaglia, hard to pin down, make up some of the constructional fabric. Post-neo-classic-romanticism reclines in the shadows. Earthy auto-suggestion veins the pages.

“There is much Northern Germany in it, the Brahmsian smell of marshland and wide skies”, maintains Glanert. Did I get that? I’m not sure. But curious resonances and redolence there certainly are. Once the ‘German Ocean’ landscape of Peter Grimes, pebbled Aldeburgh on a grey rainy autumn day, seemed to surface. Then, triggering the imagination, fragments of open terrain music – plains, tundra, steppe, Planet Earth – skimmed the clouds, faded like old snaps lost among the bric-a-brac of a Sunday car-boot sale. Finely wrought and orchestrated – contrabassoon, trombones and lower strings lending a growling, sensual edge to the deeper, warmer regions of the sound spectrum – the whole runs its 217-bar, twelve-minute journey with a compelling inevitability and cyclic ‘rightness’.

Economical in gesture, a master of his art, Semyon Bychkov (following up on a fine performance with the Berlin Philharmonic last September, link below) secured committed playing from the BBCSO. Tight to the beat, the whispered close, coming to rest on a descending E-minor arpeggio, senza ritardando, stopped not a moment too soon or too late. Ice-cool judgement.

Schubert’s massive, emotionally intense 1818 setting of Johann Mayrhofer’s allegoric Einsamkeit doesn’t get aired that often. Written two years after Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte liederkreis, it shares a superficial relationship with that work – both are divided into six sections – but is more striking as a musical construct, cantata-like, transitioning to Schubert’s great song-cycles of the 1820s. Beethoven and his poet, Alois Isidor Jeitteles, dealt in longing to be with the loved one. Schubert and his looked to isolation, loneliness – through significant stages of life: “Give me my fill of solitude … activity … good company … bliss … gloom … the consolation of solitude.”

Scored for classical forces, Glanert’s magnificent transcription (2009, revised October 2010) is a distinguished addition to the repertory, comparing comfortably with, exceeding even, the contribution of Berlioz, Brahms, Britten, Liszt, Offenbach, Reger and Webern – as the late John Steane once put it, “hardly an everyday list of ordinary hacks.” Glanert knows his Schubert with the intimacy of a lover. He takes him to the abyss of his comfort zone and orchestrates with as much a sense of period style as familiarity with works like, say, the Third and Sixth Symphonies. Yet he brings his own personality and imagination to the equation – a dramatic edge, nuances of timbre (timpani for instance, the subtly enhancing string underlay), a deep-seated awareness of a road peopled, coloured and intensified since Schubert by Mahler and Strauss not least.

Christina Gansch gave a glorious account, one of soaring tenderness, the pure bell-like sonority of her voice circling the Hall, unforced yet clear, simple rather than affected. Come the G-major of the final lines, the performance reached for heart and throat, a long reflection with Bychkov the perfect accompanist and architect, hands shaping each note, texture and cadence. “Whatever he desired, whatever he loved, whatever delighted him, whatever troubled him, sweeps past with gentle rapture, as if amid a sunset. The youth’s longing for solitude becomes the old man’s portion, and a life rough and precarious has yet led to happiness” (Emily Ezust).

Glanert – spectacled, vaguely Schubertian – took a modest bow, reluctant to take any credit for the riches he had given us.

So to Mahler’s “world of yesterday” Fourth Symphony, Gansch in vernal green rather than Schubertian wine-red. Again she gave a wondrously direct reading, her voice light-spun yet not without gravitas and trembled depth. One has heard the Finale done in many ways by many voices, some more winning and suited than others. Gansch struck just about the right tone and child-like balance, telling a ‘Wunderhorn’ story of horror and violence as much as “[tasting] the joys of heaven [caring not] for earthly life … there is no music, no music on earth, that can be compared with ours” (Deryck Cooke). She brought the freshness and blossom of young tone to the words, one of curvaceous phrasing and tonal bloom – not to mention a glissando to raise a smile (Saint Ursula’s laugh, figure 14).

Bychkov (baton in the first two movements, sensitive hands in the last two) was at pains to weave every instructed detail, rubato and expressive roulade. In consequence, at times, this seemed a deliberated, over-wrought reading – while, at fifty-five minutes, being quicker overall than many (Abbado, Barbirolli, Haitink, Horenstein, Rattle randomly: not that timings necessarily tell us that much given Mahler’s particularised handling of language, paragraphing and rhythm).

The outer movements conveyed demonstration tempo and pulse, inviting the music to breathe and flow, persuading the many instrumental solos and sections to give of their best within a fluid framework. Subterranean darkness and brooding, pain out of beauty, was at the core, the quieter, more-resigned the picture the more painful and tangible the impact. Aside from the blazing fff vision at figure 12, from G to E-major swinging via a single B-pivot – a grand moment, timpani (Christopher Hind) in rampant attack, horns in full cry – this was acutely tensioned in the ‘tombstone’ third movement, the strings especially (a solid phalanx at 18.16.14.12.10, cellos to the right) rising to stretched nerve-ends, the high ppp F# of figure 13 suspended agonisingly above white C-major before decaying into sadness. “A Hades full of terrors”, Mahler wrote. The land of Beyond (Death?). Indeed, suggested Bychkov’s narrative, the blue back-lighting of the stage switched off.

Read More

9th August 2019

Olyrix

David Verdier

Semyon Bychkov reaffirmed all the good impressions of previous years, with a beat that was regular but never detached and a perfect balance between asking and gesture

Read More

Menu