Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 73: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Bychkov @ Royal Albert Hall, London

10 September 2015

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall)

The first of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s two concerts in this year’s BBC Proms season found them playing a pair of symphonies. Brahms’ third symphony – premiered by the orchestra in 1883 under the baton of Hans Richter – usefully prefaced a rarity of the repertoire, the second symphony by Franz Schmidt, which here received its premiere performance at the Proms.

Brahms’ third symphony is a work fully within the artistic DNA of both the Vienna Philharmonic and conductor Semyon Bychkov. The opening Allegro con brio lacked nothing in the warmth of tone which the Viennese massed strings and brass afforded the music, and the Andante was amiably paced, unfolding in an effortless manner, with some delightful instances of restrained playing along the way. The Poco allegretto third movement, one of the most poised orchestral movements imaginable, was possessed of a rather ruminative quality initially, and the trio section said much through the orchestra’s delicate execution of it. The closing Allegro movement was initially portentous of mighty utterances to come, and the performance was an incisive one if a little lacking in airy amiability at its close.

Franz Schmidt served as a cellist in the Vienna Philharmonic for over fifteen years during the era of Gustav Mahler’s period as music director. His symphonic works have been slow to gather an audience outside his native Austria and is often introduced as being reminiscent of Richard Strauss, Reger and Bruckner in spirit. If, like myself, you often find Reger’s music rather dry and brittle, one need not have worried that Schmidt suffered a similar limitation. The symphony is robustly and unapologetically in the late-Romantic vein, though with a softer edge than one often finds in the symphonies of Wilhelm Fürtwangler, who was Schmidt’s junior by 12 years.

Schmidt’s second symphony in E flat major (1911-13) is cast in three movements and clearly nods its head to a certain Brucknerian expansiveness. The first movement is a lively affair with its tersely argued thematic material connected by serpentine linking sections for the strings, in which Bychkov clearly delighted. Urgent and insistent fortissimi were forthrightly played by the massed string ensemble and given a generous bloom by the orchestra’s great phalanx of brass. The second movement is a set of nine variations based on a chorale-like tune initially played with some spirit by the woodwinds, before being passed over to the strings. Across the variations a variety of moods are immediately appreciable, such as the sardonic and restless character of the fifth, the delicacy of the flute added to the sixth, the scurrilous nature of the seventh, or most impressive of all, the culminating chiaroscuro found in the extended ninth variation. The slow third movement built its momentum gradually and inexorably from the subtle brass and woodwind laden initial thematic material, in which the bassoons added much individuality of character. As things progressed, Semyon Bychkov handled the evolving material with care and authority to achieve a culmination of majesty, leaving one in little doubt that Schmidt’s oeuvre is ripe for wider public appreciation.

As an encore, the Vienna Philharmonic offered up Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. A world away from the sound-world of Schmidt, it was most gently coaxed by Bychkov and gave the audience a taste of the finesse that the orchestra most likely will bring to Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in their next Prom under Sir Simon Rattle’s baton.

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