Devastating Strauss Eine Alpensinfonie Op 64 from Semyon Bychkov at Prom 57, majestic yet menacing, as if inspired by the Mordwand, the "murder wall", pictured above, the north face of the Eiger, which has defied so many who've dared try conquering it. This was an Alpine Symphony to defy those who don't understand Strauss or his self-deprecating good humour. "It is a life journey", said Bychov on the re-broadcast, "It's deeply existential, it starts with one coming into the world, travelling through all the things that happen in one's life and then in the end, going back into the night and going into the next existence, whatever it is.... It is something that invokes very powerful images and deals with the entire spectrum of the human condition. For us on the stage it is like living a life in the span of fifty minutes or so. It is full of tension, it is relentless. The 22 episodes succeed each other, but if one can unite them into one arch, uninterrupted, it gives the feeling of a journey. It's full of joy, it's full of drama, pain, of suffering - it's everything"
Eine Alpensinfonie a Heldenleben? Mountains as metaphors for life, a subject on which I've written extensively (follow link below on mountains) Bychkov's strong-minded Strauss could be a companion piece to Mahler's Symphony no 3, which Bychkov has also conducted extremely well. The Alpine Symphony is shorter, but concise, the ideas more concentrated. Even Bychkov's Mahler Symphony no 6 (read more here) was infused by this insight into the concept of landscape providing structure for metaphysical ideas. In the "Nacht" episode, horns call us forwards, and cymbals crash. The "mountains" loom ahead, emerging out of the rumbling darkness into sunlight. As Boulez used to say "Listen for the trajectory". No waffling here. Bychkov leads the ascent with urgent, though not rushed purpose. The lyrical segments use metaphors like forests and brook, but their value isn't merely scenic. The waterfall sparkles with life : the stream originates in a source high above, possibly from beneath the primeval glaciers. Thus the bright sparkle in the orchestra, as if the music itself were infused by light, the wind instruments, literally suggesting wind, speed and movement.
The "Erschienung" is a warning. Elemental mountain spirits haunt alpine lore. In musical terms this introduces mystery, a reminder that getting lost in mountains can get you killed. The "meadows" of calm serve as a looking-back, a pause that highlights the arduous ascent. For a moment, we're rewarded with expansive vistas, the strings shining, the brass suggesting vast scale. What is this "Vision"? Is it a panorama, or a glimpse of higher spiritual and artistic ideals? But just as we think we've reached the high point, darker, more elusive elements enter. In the mountains, storms can appear in sunny skies, as in life. Bychkov shaped the quieter passages : single, sharp bowings and pluckings carefully observed. The timpani crash, the orchestra breaks out in tumult, though a tumult meticulously defined so its colours remain ferociously vivid. Lose your wits in a mountain storm and you're dead. After the outburst, the music stretches again: elegantly but with affirmation. Strauss includes celeste and organ for sonority, but also to suggest what might lie behind the transcendance. As Bychkov said, we don't know what lies ahead, but we are not really back at the beginning. though the diminuendos might evoke clouds and nightfall. In this performance I kept imagining that I heard echoes of other works. including Mahler 8, but definitely not direct quotes. As in so many things, the wider your experience, the more you get out of life, and the more you learn from your "journey", a message which does reflect the firm resolve of Strauss's conception. Definitely not a "chocolate box" performance! Bychkov's intelligence and clarity of vision made this an immensely rewarding traverse.
Alpine Symphony and Thomas Larcher's Symphony no 2 "Cenotaph" might have seemed a stretch. Larcher lives in the Austrian Alps, apparently almost off grid, and much of his output is mystically contemplative, like his Violin Concerto (more here), his Piano Concerto and his Die Nacht de Verlorenen (more here) Larcher's Symphony no 2 grew from his anguish over the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, and the images of drowned children and fleeing migrants. But don't expect a "programme" or any obvious signposts. Instead, it's a piece which deals with emotional response to crisis: shock, anger, frustration expressed through abstract sound. Thus the large orchestra and multiple voices, complex cross-rhythms and density, a powerful repetitive theme which pounds fiercely, dissipated only by rising, sharp figures that then explode in an outburst of fast-moving flurries. A hollow non-melody where the bow of a single violin skitters over wood is absorbed by the orchestra but then emerges once again, after silence. Vividly angular lines, wind machines, dizzying changes of tempo. The insistent pounding repetitions seems to rise like an insane dance, then disintegrate into shards, followed by an odd but very beautiful quasi-minuet that breaks off after a few bars, then revives in the third movement, a scherzo where the repetitions become fuller, and more circular. The lone violin returns for a brief moment, followed hy low drones and then silence. (Photo of Thomas Larcher above copyright Richard Haughton.)
"I want to explore the forms of our musical past under the light of the (musical and human) developments we have been part of during our lifetime" Larcher wrote for the premiere this June where Bychkov conducted it with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra "How can we find tonality that speaks in our time? And how can the old forms speak to us? These are questions I often ask myself. This piece is very much about different forms of energy: bundled, scattered, smooth, kinetic or furious." This Proms season, there have been premieres which have been just awful as music ( Lera Auerbach), barely redeemed by good performance, and work ruined by conductors who think one size fits all, regardless of genre (no names, but thank goodness one of these is moving on). Bychkov doesn't conduct much new music, but here he showed what a real conductor can do when he cares enough about music to do it properly. Larcher's Symphony no 2 is a keeper. If the BBC would programme good new music with good performances, instead of commissioning titbits and populist crossover, audiences would realize what's really happening in the world.
Between two pieces of non-programmatic work based on theoretical programmes, Richard Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder in Felix Mottl's orchestration, with soloist Elisabeth Kulman. Pleasant enough but, for once, Wagner didn't eclipse all else.