Prom 56 – Though compelling, Mahler’s Sixth lacks the last degree of impact at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 56 –  Richard Strauss, Mahler: Kirill Gerstein (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov. Royal Albert Hall, London, 26.8.2011. (JPr)

Strauss: Burleske in D minor
Symphony No.6

Semyon Bychkov is a great Wagner conductor, based on his Lohengrins at Covent Garden. He may well be an excellent Straussian on the evidence of the small bagatelle performed here, but on this evidence whether he is a great Mahlerian, on reflection, the jury must remain out on that. Compelling as the Mahler was, it just did not have the impact I expected. What was the problem – the size of the venue, the much-expanded BBC Symphony Orchestra or the conductor himself … who knows?

The last time this massive, meaningful work was heard here, was in 2009 and it is not a rarity at the Proms. Semyon Bychkov, in the second of his Proms this season had initially seemed an excellent choice to conduct it. He chose to revert to Mahler’s original order in playing the middle movements, reversing the second (Andante moderato) and third (Scherzo: Wuchtig) as is the modern custom but he also chose to omit – disappointingly – the third and final hammer-blow in the Finale.

There is no great evidence that Mahler himself ever referred to this symphony as the ‘Tragic’ but that is the descriptor often given to it. Until Mahler’s wife, Alma, developed a ‘wandering eye’, as a family they spent many happy times in the Austrian Alps from 1902, and this inspired much of the musical and thematic material, leaving the first three movements open to much re-interpretation. Undoubtedly the final one takes us from heartbreak to total despair. Bychkov controlled his tightly packed forces with minimal effort and watching him conduct was a pleasure as he never called attention to himself but made his gestures fit the music and his beat seemed very clear.

Mahler, of course, was an expert contrapuntalist and orchestrator and as a result, wove into his symphonies dense, complex textures with many independently moving lines and voices. They can all seem equally important in theory, but in practice, it is obviously impossible to make them all equally prominent. So the size of the forces in front of him, as well as the massive auditorium, brought its own significant problem of balance and Bychkov would constantly have to decide which detail should be highlighted. This is one reason why a familiar symphony can sound almost like a new piece in each different conductor’s hands: one hears lines that one never heard before. Clearly this happened here but on this occasion it was to the detriment of the transparency required for the manifold mood- and character-changes in this towering work. Undoubtedly, by the placing of some cowbells high up in the Balcony Bychkov created some considerable atmosphere, even if they did occasionally sound like crashing crockery.

The orchestra launched headlong into the first movement and kept up this relentless forward momentum throughout the Symphony’s ninety-minute duration. The throbbing strings drove it all onwards and the repeat of the exposition only increased the sensation of searing intensity. Only the ‘Alma Theme’ allowed moments of fleeting lyricism and a reflection of deeper feelings. The Scherzo was equally dark with only the trio sections floating dreamily independent from their surroundings. Nevertheless, the bittersweet Andante began immediately with such a sensitively phrased and meltingly beautiful melody that not even the hardest of hearts would fail to have been transported to an almost Strauss-like Alpine idyll. Here, particularly, the BBC SO’s gently swaying strings played with consummate tenderness. The massive Finale was as vast and as harrowing as expected, full of battling sonic extremes and incandescent orchestral statements that collapse in on themselves from time to time, especially under the two early hammer blows that had a tremendous impact in this hall. Under Bychkov’s tight control the strings smoldered on and the brass sonorities broke through the orchestral fabric. Viscerally, it was tremendously exciting right up to the point of absolute musical resignation at the end; though overall this reading didn’t quite have the true exploration of whatever darkness there was in Mahler’s soul at this point in his life, as it sometimes can do.

The members of the augmented BBC SO supported Bychkov wonderfully and were absolutely together except for just the occasional fleeting moment. The brass and woodwind sections excelled in their standout phrases, while it was the massed strings that provided the solid backbone. There were too many excellent individual contributions to mention them all. Still, it is important to acknowledge their leader, Andrew Haveron, and principal horn, Martin Owen, for their solos and ‘duet’ as well as the valiant timpanists, John Chimes and Christopher Hind.

In fact John Chimes had made an important contribution in Strauss’s Burleske that was performed before the interval, as this work often featured another ‘duet’, this time between his timpani and Kirill Gerstein’s piano. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony has a stature that does not really need any ”introduction’ and if anything is required it should have been something more substantial than this twenty-minute work. Burleske is a pastiche of similar piano pieces by Brahms and Liszt and so it is quite appropriate that Leonard Bernstein ‘appropriated’ a few bars, almost note-for-note, from the early slowish section as his ‘inspiration’ for a pivotal theme in ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story! Gerstein dispatched Burleske‘s technical pianistic difficulties with some clinical bravura and fellow-Russian Bychkov, together with his orchestra, accompanied him eloquently and wittily.

Jim Pritchard