Try putting a quart into a pint pot and you are extremely unlikely to succeed. That has never stopped composers from wanting to encompass the entire world in works of modest duration. Mahler for one set out to do so; before him Schubert attempted to do much the same. This was the composer who elevated the humble song into an art form to be reckoned with, the Kunstlied. In more than 600 such works credited to his name his main collaborator was Johann Mayrhofer, whose long poem Einsamkeit with its twelve stanzas in ottava rima mode had the potential Schubert was looking for. Joy, love, rejection, misery, fun, horror and war – it was all there. Two centuries after its composition Detlev Glanert made an orchestral arrangement of this twenty-minute piece, which in this concert given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov was receiving its first performance at the Proms.

Semyon Bychkov © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Semyon Bychkov
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

What struck me especially in Glanert’s realisation is how emotion is translated into rich and varied orchestral painting. At the outset, when the poet beseeches “Give me my fill of solitude”, the dark colours of low horns, clarinets and bassoons predominate. Later, when the talk turns to “a furious murderer of brothers”, the entire ensemble is deployed with sharp, brass-heavy Mahlerian anguish, making a key link with the evening’s main work. At the point where the poet’s friends have departed and “filled with the pain of longing, he looks heavenwards”, the warmth of a clarinet solo introduces a metaphysical dimension. However, these many sensitive details are quite secondary: it is the human voice that takes the listener through this vast emotional territory. The bright, silvery tones of the Austrian soprano Christina Gansch and her excellent diction – characteristics which made her an ideal soloist in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – allowed the vocal line to glitter and sparkle, not least when she sang of masked balls, magnificent palaces and noisy celebrations. Her secure lower register was confidently displayed when she emphasised the need to “Give me my fill of gloom”. Fine though her contribution was, I do have a minor quibble. There was a slight tendency to declaim, with little or no body language to support the narration.

Ideally, the titles of contemporary works should be programmatic or at least self-explanatory. Bychkov has championed other works by Glanert in his concert programmes and his Weites Land or “Open Country” (subtitled “Music with Brahms for orchestra”) provided the evening’s entrée. Apart from a wispy echo of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, there was not much of a recognition factor. If obvious links were to be made, these came in genuflections towards the main work: a plaintive oboe and trumpet flourishes that belong to the Mahlerian sound-world, with aching strings and angry pouting from trombones rendering essential anguish. This overriding sense of desolation might be seen as a metaphor for barren terrain, but without much clear direction in the music I struggled to find a real connection with either Brahms or the beauties of landscape.

For Mahler’s G major symphony Bychkov had boosted all the string desks, including a solid bass line of ten double basses. These forces delivered a big and powerful sound when required, but it is testament to Bychkov’s sensitive and judicious handling of the score that transparency was a hallmark of the reading, with only the reticence of the two harps a deficiency in the overall balance. Instrumental solos crowned the gleaming textures, with Igor Yuzefovich’s devilish fiddle in the second movement, Helen Clinton’s characterful oboe and a superb trumpet section led by James Fountain being particular delights.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is not all about heaven, nor a homage to Mozartian classicism, still less a misty-eyed positivity about the delights of the real world. It is sometimes overlooked that Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel was a work which Mahler himself regularly programmed. Not just merry pranks, but a sticky end too. The slaughtering of the oxen, leading “a lovely lamb to death” and the scalp-crawling picture of “the butcher Herod” waiting in the wings, all of which were movingly referenced by Gansch in her solos, are as tangible as any childlike representation of paradise.

Bychkov began briskly in no-nonsense fashion, the sleigh-bells signalling something akin to a peasants’ merrymaking, the rhythms confidently projected, the textures cleanly defined. But there was something more that Bychkov gave to the mix, something that I have often missed in other ultra-refined readings. This was a nervy excitability, a hint of the neurosis that characterises the later symphonies. Even more welcome was a sensuality Bychkov found in the score, a delight in the bracing fresh mountain air, the caress of walking through waist-high cornfields. In the finale he achieved a wondrously soft cushion of sound to support the bell-like clarity of the solo voice, the culmination of a most satisfying interpretation.