The creative environments of the three composers featured in this prom, in which Semyon Bychkov conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, are linked by the Alps – Austrian, Swiss and German – but only one piece, Strauss’ massive Alpine Symphony, reflects directly those surroundings. The Austrian composer Thomas Larcher, who lives a secluded life in a Tyrolean eyrie, looks beyond European borders in his new Second Symphony, premiered in Vienna in June, to the tragedy of the ongoing refugee crisis. It is subtitled ‘Cenotaph’ and was written as a memorial to the thousands who have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean. A substantial 35-minute work in four movements it also attempts to reinvent the traditional symphony for the modern age. It proved more successful in its extra-musical intent than in the latter.

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

There’s a palpable anger at work in the orchestral violence on display, and grief in its more contemplative passages, and there’s no mistaking the sincerity of the composer’s emotional involvement with his inspiration, which never extends to anything that might be deemed programmatic. But the banality of so much of Larcher’s musical material, its recourse to unimaginative scales, arpeggios and trite harmonic sequences, as well as its uneasy blending of tonality and dissonance (in itself a wholly valid means of symphonic argument), conspire to undermine the piece’s seriousness of purpose. It’s dazzlingly orchestrated, though, and its sonic range is enhanced by a large percussion contingent, including oil drums, with some more delicate detail from prepared piano. It was also played here with enormous panache, especially by the busy percussion department, one of whose members was even seen legging it up several flights of steps between instruments.

The intimacy of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, composed in Zurich while the composer was sponging off the hospitality of a retired Swiss silk merchant and falling for his wife, proved the perfect foil. It was a performance as notable for the Proms debut of Austrian mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman as it was for Bychkov’s detailed, sensitive shaping of the accompaniments as played in Felix Mottl’s orchestrations. Kulman – an experienced Brangäne and Fricka on stage – brought out the music’s ardour with an even tone across the whole range and her diction, in particular, was exemplary – not an easy thing to achieve in the Albert Hall’s cavernous space.

Bychkov is one of today’s great Strauss conductors and he lived up to his reputation in a towering account of the Alpine Symphony. A work that it is easy to dismiss as little more than picture postcards in music, it needs sensitive handling in order to allow its symphonic dimension to come to the fore. And so it did here, without ever losing its descriptive power – the storm passage was especially vivid, climaxing with another athletic percussionist beating the living daylights out of the thunder sheet, and the Albert Hall’s upper reaches lent real atmosphere to Strauss’ extravagance of a dozen offstage horns evoking a hunt of mythic proportions. But the overall shape, too, was impressive, like a great arch mirroring the Alpine profile itself within which Strauss’ masterly weaving of his themes, and his carefully paced succession of brass-topped climaxes, took on true symphonic weight and a musical metaphor for struggle and achievement. One could forgive the odd fluffed note (it was a long programme in a busy Proms schedule) in a performance that reminded us what a magnificent orchestra the BBC Symphony is these days.