BBC Prom 73, VPO/Bychkov, 10 September 2015

BBC Prom 73, 10 September 2015

Brahms – Symphony No. 3 in F Major
Schmidt – Symphony No. 2 in E flat major

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
conductor – Semyon Bychkov

Clearly it would be ungrateful to wish that this concert had not taken place in the Royal Albert Hall, given the small number of performances by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in London across the years and that many of the capacity audience would otherwise be denied a chance to hear their “favourite” orchestra. But for once, it was quite impossible to put aside any suspension of disbelief in the RAH acoustic, at least from my standing place in the gallery. The subtleties of Brahms’ most enigmatic symphonic work were often lost in the wallow of the huge space, and the over-active detail of Schmidt’s orchestration regularly became annoyingly bright and shiny. In the absence of a decent concert hall in London, the performance of both works (and I thought I’d never say this) would have been heard to better effect in the comparatively smaller and dryer Royal Festival Hall.

Other factors weighed against universal approval of the Brahms, the sole work in the first half of the concert. An early start, necessitated by another prom concert later in the evening, meant more latecomers than usual were admitted after the first movement, in all parts of the hall. Determined inter-movement clapping from the same two sources higher up in the hall also contributed to keeping the atmosphere disturbed. None of the music that Bychkov and the orchestra have in the repertoire for their current tour (through Salzburg, Grafeneg, Birmingham, London, Lucerne, Bucharest, Vienna and Linz, for 23 days) would have been ideal as an opening work before the Brahms – though Haydn’s 44th Symphony would have been a particular pleasure. Indeed, during their tour, the Brahms symphony is consistently placed on its own; though, significantly, always in the second half of a concert. I’m not intending to demean music as a useful crowd control device, but for once, anything that settled the audience, gave the clapping-addicts some early satisfaction, and prepared more people for listening to the Brahms sufficiently closely, would have been very welcome.

The first movement was taken briskly, with less neurotic questioning of each phrase than in many performances. Instead, some “classical” restraint through both thematic groups in the exposition meant the outbursts in the development and coda had a careful structural significance. The effect on the harmonic momentum caused by some unmarked slowing during transitions into the second subject group and the repeat of the exposition was negligible, and in contrast the continuation of pulse during the horn passage leading to the recapitulation was a welcome lack of indulgence, in keeping with the more objective approach to the movement as a whole.

That’s not to imply any absence of warmth or subtlety in the conducting or playing, shown especially in the sequences of the second movement, where mood and colour brightened and darkened imperceptibly, yet were kept in the same careful structure balance. Few orchestras can match the VPO for a sound that is so entirely appropriate to Brahms’ most echt-Viennese music in the third movement of this work. But here, one began to wonder if the objective approach was a deliberate response to the constraints of the hall or an attempt to keep excess passion in check. Either way, it wasn’t as entrancing as expected, even if in keeping with the restraint shown through the work as a whole.

No problems in the last movement, where the simplicity of phrasing in the chorale-like theme held its place in the excitable surrounding passages, and placed the emotional weight of the movement appropriately in the coda rather than any of the preceding climaxes.

Whatever Schmidt learned during his brief period of music theory study with Bruckner, it was obviously unlikely to be a sense of classical restraint. The first proms performance of Schmidt’s Second Symphony, doubtless also the first time many in the audience had heard it live or at all, was incessantly virtuosic and exuberant – but did nothing to dispel the sense that the work comprises a luxuriously rich sequence of near-random passages, held together more by repetition than symphonic necessity.

Unfamiliarity is not the issue. During the early decades of the 20th century, British critical reaction to similar outsize late-romantic symphonic music may have been bewildered and inadequate through lack of exposure to that idiom. These days the rapid assimilation of far more complex idioms is standard, and the problem instead is maintaining interest in this particular work as a symphony, despite its considerable superficial character and occasional grand (or loud) gestures.

Some instances of the musical imagery and ideas are appealing enough for a few bars, but the lack of substantial development and transition from one statement to its next repetition is ultimately frustrating. The middle movement “cleverly” appends the scherzo and trio as the last of a set of variations instead of a stand-alone movement on their own, but the lack of invention in most of the preceding eight variations numbs appreciation of that structural effect. Paragraphs and melodic fragments start, rich orchestration builds, all to tail off uncertainly towards another restatement of the same material, especially in the finale. Some passages – the eighth variation in the second movement, the polyphonic wind choir opening the last movement – reach expressive heights on their own. The military second theme in the scherzo sounds oddly like a prefigurement of Hindemith. But right up to the perfunctory conclusion, these passages remain isolated moments of clarity in a swirl of unstructured colour.

Bychkov clearly likes the work, having conducted it regularly, and it’s hard to imagine it played more sympathetically than in this performance. Even the most awkardly-written tutti passages had unquestionable coherence and momentum, and everywhere else the fluency in line and texture kept the attention, if not the interest. The problems with the piece are hardly atypical of its period, nor can every unknown work be expected to return to the repertory as a masterpiece. If you’re happy to put musical logic aside, and want 45 minutes of huge, unfamiliar late-romantic noise, then this symphony is, just, enjoyable enough.