Prom 57: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov – Thomas Larcher’s Symphony No.2 and Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony – Elisabeth Kulman sings Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder

Thomas Larcher
Symphony No.2 (Cenotaph) [UK premiere]
Wesendonck-Lieder [orch. Felix Mottl; sung in German; text and translation included in programme]
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64

Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 28 August, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano).Photograph:  Julia WeselyWagner’s song-cycle sets poems by his muse, the married Matilde Wesendonck, and was cleverly programmed as ‘light relief’ between two monumental symphonic works requiring brilliance and virtuosity.

The Songs were heard in the familiar orchestration by Felix Mottl, and featured Austrian mezzo Elisabeth Kulman – a singer with a gloriously warm middle range allied to a secure limpid top register, so that the occasional forays high above the stave were given their due measure. Her diction was superb, and she bought intimacy and poise aplenty after a slightly choppy first phrase or two at the start of ‘Der Engel’. Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra provided ethereal and transparent accompaniment, Bychkov unfailingly generous to Kulman. ‘Im Treibhaus’ and ‘Träume’ – both designated as “Studies for Tristan und Isolde” – and the familiar themes from the latter two Acts of the opera that they enshrine were emotionally evocative as played and sung here.

The Prom had opened with also-Austrian Thomas Larcher’s 35-minute Second Symphony, which was premiered in June this year by Bychkov and the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s a complex yet immediate work. Beginning with a striking percussive flourish, repeated at junctures, the soundscape then alternates or militates between portentous dense harmonic chords and fiery, agitated motifs. There are moments where solo violin and solo viola calm the frenetic activity in initially confident ways until uncertainty creeps back. There is deft use of percussion and especially of ‘prepared’ piano. There is also a most attractive, churning theme that emerges towards the latter part of the first movement.

The second movement, Adagio, opens with prominent middle strings and introduces an ascending motif before a glittery transparent middle section showcases the vast array of percussion to luminous effect. The movement ends in a quietly sustained fade. Dissonance and aggression return in the third movement with hard repetitive and increasingly rapid-sounding of an oddly unsettling chord, interspersed with flashes of music from earlier times – including an evocation of a Ländler, re-emphasising links with Mahler evident elsewhere. The Finale maintains both the tension and the arguments at a slower pace, ostensibly trying to reconcile the various factions. There is an uneasy resolution. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, was on alert and responsive form.

Conductor Semyon Bychkov at the BBC Proms 2013.Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouSuch ebullient and dedicated form was maintained throughout Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Bychkov steered a contained but not restrained course through this life-journey. The opening night scene transformed into a glorious sunrise; the waterfalls and streams had aqueous qualities in abundance (one realised how much Strauss used this illustrative technique again during Die Frau ohne Schatten); and other sections were as suggestive as they should be. The grandeur of the view from the peak was aurally immediate, as was the storm and descent that followed. Soloists, sections of, and the whole of the BBCSO responded to their moments in the (almost cinematic) spotlight … exciting and moving – oh yes!

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