Monday, 12 August 2019

Semyon Bychkov Prom : Detlev Glanert, Mahler 4

                                                                                                      Photo: Roger Thomas 

Prom 33 at the Royal Albert Hall, with Semyon Bychkov conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Detlev Glanert and Gustav Mahler Symphony no 4.  Bychkov and the BBC SO are always reliable, so this Mahler 4 should have been safe.  Glanert's been a Proms favourite for years - 9 individual works since 1995. So no surpises there, either. But sometimes safe is not enough. How I longed for something to ignite, to lift the performances from routine to what they could have been!

Detlev Glanert

Detlev Glanert was one of Hans Werner Henze's few students. Like Henze, Glanert's very prolific - 11 operas, including Caligula which has been staged in London, (see more here and my review of a performance in Frankfurt here) and numerous other works, including the fairly recent Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch. Please see my detailed review of that here, which will be useful since that, too is coming to the Barbican on 4th December, with Semyon Bychkov conducting the BBCSO, part of a Total Immersion Day into Glanert's career. (Please see more here). That's the real reason behind this Proms programme - not because Einsamkeit is connected to Mahler.  Not at all - read the poem ! One of Glanert's things has been his adaptations of other composer's works - oodles and oddles of them, not all straightforward orchestrations. Some have been much more original works, like his early Mahler Skizze, a zany"joke" combining different themes from Mahler. He has often reorchestrated Schubert, many of these miniatures featuring in earlier proms over the years. Glanert's Einsamkeit is based on Schubert's Einsamkeit D620 (1818), a long ballad to a poem by Franz Joseph Mayrhofer, with whom Schubert had a curious relationship. Morose and possibly mentally unstable, Mayrhofer had few friends and eventually committed suicide, so the poem is oddly prophetic. Please read the text here on, with translations.  If poems could be bipolar, this might be one, with its repeating first lines, and extreme contrasts betwen verses. The piano part in Schubert's setting swings from vehement to eerily insouciant, with obssessive pedalling throughout.  The text is a prayer to a deranged God, the pentitent doomed to eternal self-torture.  In theory, this could have been adapted to a scena of great dramatic presence. But it's very much a "masculine" poem, so why set it for soprano?  Perhaps some sopranos could make it suitably demonic, but not Christina Gansch, who was under strain, unable to compete with the orchestra.

Rather more convincing, Glanert's Weites Land ('Musik mit Brahms' for orchestra) . "Immediately recognizable points of departure are the first four measures of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony with its characteristic alternation of a descending third and ascending sixth. Both intervals are woven into the texture time and again, until the surprising conclusion" wrote a German critic at its premiere in 2014.  Again we have Glanert's feel for heady contrast, here effective because it's not tied to text but to abstract atmosphere: Perhaps a sense of wide, open horizons, where land meets sea and sky?

Bychkov and the BBC SO have done loads of Mahler over the years, separately and together, so it could be taken as given that this would be a decent Mahler 4. It didn't, of course, reach the heights of Bernard Haitink's Mahler 4 with the BBC SO earlier this year at the Barbican - please read my review here - but perhaps nothing could. Haitink's in an altogther more elevated league. So I wasn't too bothered and enjoyed the performance well enough, though I could not understand why some of the Royal Albert Hall audience needed to clap wildly between each movement - something to do with the hands when the mind's not engaged.  Wisely Bychkov didn't allow even the shortest break between the third and final movements, and held his hands aloft for the longest time at the very end, sending a clear message to the audience : pay attention!  A decent reading, if nothing very memorable. Glanert was the real reason for this Prom, but Mahler sells, especially Mahler 4 which many still think is "sunny" and light.  But, as with Haitink's M4, the performance was let down by the singing. Gansch is very young and not all that experienced, which is not necessarily a bad thing, if you realize that the text describes a child's vision of heaven.  There are many different ways of interpreting and perfoming this part : child-like delicacy, sensual enjoyment, melancholy mixed with joy. But it does need a singer who can put more into it. Many more senior singers would think twice about singing Mahler 4 in the same programme as a demanding new work like Einsamkeit, but Gansch isn't yet well enough established to stand up to management pressure.

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