United Kingdom Prom 65 – Bruckner: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 4.9.2023. (JR)
Bruckner – Symphony No.8 in C minor (1890 version, ed. Nowak)
The BBC Proms are now, finally, drawing to a close and this concert was (if we exclude the fun and games of the Last Night) the final heavyweight performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra who are the backbone of the Festival. For this concert, Semyon Bychkov, in his eleventh year as the orchestra’s ‘Günter Wand Conducting Chair’, gave us a masterly reading of the composer’s final completed symphony, his Eighth, in the 1890 Nowak edition. This is the edition normally played nowadays, the original version being longer and slightly less dark, orchestration less rich and less refined. Thankfully, Bychkov did not precede or follow the work with anything else: the focus was wisely on the main event.
Was it coincidence that the performance was given on Bruckner’s birthday, 199th? Probably not, though I found no reference to the fact in the programme. Will it mean more Bruckner performances in the year of his 200th anniversary? Let us live in hope.
Bruckner’s symphonies have been called ‘cathedrals in sound’ and the acoustics of the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, not ideal for some intimate compositions, work well for Bruckner’s monumental soundworld. Bychkov certainly knows his Bruckner and performs the Eighth quite regularly. Although he uses a score, he hardly looks at it, and has a view on every phrase. Bruckner’s trademark ascending and descending scales never sounded pedestrian, and no bar is taken for granted. His reading was not fast, but he maintained an unerring sense of pulse; and the exhilarating climaxes of searing power lacked nothing in intensity or volume. Bychkov coaxed some glorious playing from the orchestra, perhaps the result of an extra rehearsal? His rapport with the orchestra was evident and visible.
The orchestra was on its very best form, glorious, blended horns and Wagner tubas, blazing brass and a particularly dynamic timpanist. The string section was augmented and produced silken sound whenever required. They excelled in the sublime, yearning Adagio, the opening theme played ardently by the whole string section. Bychkov dug deep with the urgent chords after the second cymbal clash, the very heart of the movement and heart of the symphony. At times one could sense that the reading had a Russian weightiness, and perhaps less mystery – but the overall result was unarguably fine. The ending of the work was a particular glory, Bychkov laying out the themes transparently before the symphony’s final awe-inspiring and exhilarating close.
The Prommers could hardly wait for the last note to end before, rightly, bursting into wild acclamation.