mon 26/02/2024

Morison, Immler, BBCSO, Bychkov, Barbican review - a Kafka journey and a mighty landmark | reviews, news & interviews

Morison, Immler, BBCSO, Bychkov, Barbican review - a Kafka journey and a mighty landmark

Morison, Immler, BBCSO, Bychkov, Barbican review - a Kafka journey and a mighty landmark

Multi-tasking maestro shines with new songs and old forms

Another kind of winter journey: Catriona Morison, Semyon Bychkov and Christian Immlerall images Mark Allan/ BBC

The German composer Detlev Glanert, taught by Hans Werner Henze and a past collaborator with Oliver Knussen, received a Proms commission as far back as 1996. He remains, it might be fair to say, a shadowy presence here despite his prominence back home.

Yesterday he came to the Barbican to hear Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra give the UK premiere of his Prague Symphony, commissioned by the conductor for the Czech Philharmonic and first performed in the city late last year. Although, after the interval, Bychkov followed up with a big-boned and open-hearted reading of Brahms’s Fourth, Glanert’s powerfully ambitious work made a far stronger impact that new-minted preliminaries to some tried-and-trusted favourite often do. Despite its hubristic title (and lack of Mozartian links), the Prague Symphony deserves to thrive and to spread.

Like Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, or Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, this is effectively a large-scale song-cycle braided by lavish, sometimes sumptuous, orchestral writing. Glanert has combined fragments from Franz Kafka’s letters, diaries and notebooks into a sort of emotional journey for two voices – Catriona Morison’s mezzo-soprano and Christian Immler’s bass-baritone –  who move from isolation into a tentative union, and then onwards to face a clouded, even threatening, future together. Eclectic and resourceful, often memorably if ambiguously tonal, the multi-coloured orchestration at which Glanert (pictured below) excels attractively sets scenes and deepens moods. Meanwhile, his long-limbed, expressive vocal lines remind us of the composer’s prowess as a creator of operas (his The Jewess of Toledo, based on a Grillparzer play, opens at Dresden’s Semperoper next February).

An extended suite of knitted Kafka offcuts sounds like a tough listen. It was not. Morison and Immler, both fully in command across their range, brought yearning, tenderness, dread and even humour to this bricolage voyage out of loneliness through transient bliss and into a wider, ominous landscape of trepidation. Meanwhile, Bychkov and the BBCSO mined the colour and variety of Glanert’s score for effects that stretch from the irruptive, discordant anxiety of the earlier numbers through the almost jolly inferno of “Hades” – with its droll demonic march – to the Tristan-esque string swoon of the love interlude, “Oh beautiful hour”. 

From twin harps and leader Igor Yuzefovich’s wistful dialogues with the soloists, to the jittery, skittering strings of “What is your complaint?” and haunting pastoral passages in the woodwinds, Glanert’s flavourful mood music has a direct, sometimes even filmic, appeal. Compelling when alone, Morison (pictured below) and Immler proved especially charismatic in duets such as the dance-like “Little Soul”. From first to last, right up to the delicate Mahlerian leave-taking of “Never More”, Damien Kennedy’s eloquent surtitles let everyone join the bittersweet Kafka voyage. 

Even in the new-fangled but history-haunted company of Glanert’s music, Brahms’s mighty Fourth could never sound like an anticlimax. Bychkov began modestly, even hesitantly, but his interpretation grew remorselessly in drama, contrast and authority, until the stupendous final-movement passacaglia struck with sufficient force to blow the house down. Never afraid of elastic tempi – becalmed sections of the opening certainly put the “non troppo” not “allegro” – the conductor showed a formidable architectural grasp of the great unfolding vistas that roll out from the tight central core of Brahms’s motifs. Under Bychkov’s baton, we definitely looked forward to the Brahmsophile Schoenberg as well as back to the composer’s mentor, Schumann. 

Above all, Bychkov (pictured below) began to find taut rhythmic excitement and richly articulated textures all around the stage: in the mellow but muscular horns; the pulsating, enveloping cellos and basses; in the sweeping but never schmaltzy violins as they glowed through the big andante tune first announced in radiant cellos; in Michael Cox’s refined flute interjections, in the earthy, comforting trombones in the finale, and always in Antoine Bedewi’s thundering, heavenly timpani. 

Stage by stage, Bychkov dialled up the momentum and intensity until that closing passacaglia ricocheted around the hall like a densely choreographed lightning-storm. He packed each bar with light, shade and even shock. How odd to recall that some contemporaries deemed the Fourth an over-intellectual piece. Here it punched the guts as much as it thrilled the mind.   

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