Near-overwhelming Glanert and fine Brahms from Bychkov and the BBC SO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glanert, Brahms: Catriona Morison (mezzo-soprano), Christian Immler (baritone), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 24.11.2023. (CC)

Semyon Bychkov © Mark Allan

Detlev GlanertPrague Symphony – Lyrical Fragments after Franz Kafka (Symphony No.4, BBC co-commission, UK premiere)
Brahms – Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

Two Fourth Symphonies, one co-commissioned by the BBC and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Dedicated to Semyon Bychkov, Glanert’s Fourth was premiered in Prague, and has subsequently been performed in Leipzig and Amsterdam; and now, London.

Glanert sets poems by Franz Kafka, carefully chosen to tell a story of two people (or one split into two, perhaps – think the interior duologue in ‘Der Abschied’ from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde) – from youth to old age. This is ambitious, as Glanert’s score aims to take in a whole gamut of emotions before finally spiralling off into an unknown ‘other’. Glanert’s piece is clearly in the tradition of Mahler’s Das Lied and Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony; the difference here is that the two singers are not as isolated, they come together – in the final, twelfth, movement, ‘Nimmermehr,’ they actually sing the same music.

Calling a symphony, a ‘Prague Symphony’ is brave in and of itself when one considers Mozart’s eternal masterpiece, Glanert’s piece lasts around 45 minutes and unfolds with an operatic sense of narration. The first movement falls to the baritone, here the superb Christian Immler. There is some of the sense of soloist versus orchestra one hears in the first movement of Mahler’s Das Lied (where a heldentenor must assert himself, very much against the odds). It is not quite as pronounced – perhaps because Glanert could not bring himself to be so overpowering, an impression formed via the clarity and expertise of his scoring. There was no doubting, either, how far Bychkov had immersed himself in this score. Every lead, every beat was supremely confident. Immler’s diction was impeccable (try the section from ‘Unter einander’).

With the entrance of the mezzo-soprano, the equally superb Catriona Morison, the music takes an altogether more Bergian turn, just before the mezzo sings ‘alles vergessen’ (a Bergian slant returns later, in the fourth movement, wherein Glanert seems to reference the eerie nocturnal nature sounds heard by the Captain and the Doctor in Wozzeck). One could, perhaps, cite Mahlerian praxis in the bizarre distortion of a dance in the ‘Hades’ (fifth) movement, which continues into the sixth. Aggregations of textures and lines – almost Ivesian – culminate in controlled chaos. But only just controlled – this is a master at work and the impression is near-overwhelming.

The BBC SO conducted by Semyon Bychkov with Catriona Morison (mezzo-soprano) and Christian Immler (baritone) © Mark Allan

There is a distinctly Mahlerian sense of world-weariness to ‘Menschen’ – ‘Weh’ (‘Woe’) cried Immler before a determined ‘Ich will nicht’, undercut by scurrying orchestra, a sound altogether less sure of itself. Immler is an astonishing singer who has never failed to impress (his contribution to the Insula Die Freischütz forever etched in my memory (review here). Whether in heartfelt cry or the quietest of confidences, he is magnificent.

Morison was scarily any less impressive. How beautiful was her sound in ‘Um was klagst du?’ (‘What is your complaint?’). The sense of all conspiring to give Glanert’s score in the best possible light was stirring; the core itself was inspired. When the two harps of the opening return late on, there is a sense of homecoming: Glanert has created a whole Universe, one which we are slowly learning to navigate. The closing movement, with the two singers in rhythmic unison against the superb solo violin of Igor Yuzefovich is incredibly touching. Repeated listenings (the performance is currently available on BBC Sounds) will surely enable one to appreciate the territory more on each traversal. The piece does need to be experienced as a full 45-minute span, though. For all his colour and eye for minutiae, Glanert is a structuralist, creating a plan, here, the symphonic and the operatic themselves dance. A major UK premiere.

After that, the major question would Brahms Four be underwhelming? Certainly not, as it turned out. This was a mature, carefully considered reading. Bychkov is a known orchestral disciplinarian (in the sense he is adamant about fidelity) and that shone through. Rarely has the BBC Symphony Orchestra sounded so focused in core repertoire. There was affection here in Bychkov’s reading, but always held within the over-arching musical argument. The orchestra responded beautifully. The opening of the symphony respired – one could feel the in- and out-breaths. There was no sense of the abrasiveness that sometimes can blight the BBC SO’s upper strings. The opening of the second movement (third and fourth horns in exact unison) was as exact as they come, the tempo perfect, allowing for lyricism but no dithering. Perhaps the third movement could have had just an extra inch of verve, but it gained from ultimate clarity. Only the finale held the occasional scrappy moment, and very passing they were, too. With a superb flute solo (Michael Cox), trombones capable of the most velvet of chorales and an end that almost blazed, this was a fine (if not ultimate) Brahms Fourth.

But, oh my, that Glanert. Of course, Glanert and Bychkov have been linked for some time. This evening brought back memories of a 2019 BBC Prom in which Bychkov conducted the BBC SO in Glanert (Weites Land), Schubert/Glanert (Einsamkeit) and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (review here). The conductor’s recording of Glanert’s Theatrum bestiarum (coupled with Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony) on Avie is also phenomenal.

Colin Clarke

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