Prom 65 comprised two works originally designed for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, written either side of the Great War, which here bookended Berio’s extraordinary collage of musical fragments. One might also summarise the programme as the work of two master-orchestrators framing a musical time traveller. Whichever way you look at it, this was a trio of 20th-century classics, works remarkably different in their conception but each developing from fractures in society belonging to their respective periods.

Semyon Bychkov © Chris Christodoulou
Semyon Bychkov
© Chris Christodoulou

First off was La Valse, Ravel’s attempt to supply Diaghilev with a second ballet and who famously responded with, “It’s a masterpiece, but it’s not a ballet. It’s a portrait of a ballet”. Disappointment eventually turned to success, although at its first Proms outing in 1921 The Times critic scorned its “sensationalism” and dismissed it as “highbrow jazz”. Well, what do critics know? Perhaps its première on that occasion was faster than this performance under Semyon Bychkov who kept things pretty much buttoned up. There were hints of wild abandon towards the end, but his spick and span interpretation seemed at some remove from Ravel’s own description of his choreographic poem as an “impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling motion”. There may not have been much exhilaration, but the orchestral control in this handsome account was exceptional, the BBC Symphony Orchestra perfectly balanced (while allowing room for fruity woodwind and clear-cut brass) and demonstrating beyond any doubt Bychkov’s remarkable ear for clarity.

These qualities were also evident in Berio’s era-defining Sinfonia which, since its UK première in 1969 (at this address and under his baton) has arguably become his most widely known work. Its appeal arises largely from the third of its five movements, centred around quotations from Mahler’s Second Symphony, as well as snippets from, amongst others, Ravel's La Valse and Stravinsky's Rite. Together, they shrink-wrap 20th-century musical history into a single span. Texts by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Martin Luther King and Samuel Beckett also contribute to the work’s cultural cross-references, its memorabilia presented here by eight amplified vocalists from London Voices (seated in horseshoe formation around Bychkov) one of whom gave a personal “Thank you, Mr Bychkov” in the central movement’s zany patchwork. Words were not always clear despite the best efforts of sound projectionist Ian Dearden (no doubt radio listeners had a better deal), but their delivery was classy, especially when vocalising or singing in strange but compelling wordless a cappella chords, all wonderfully evoking the period of the work. The orchestra, long associated with this score, as is Bychkov, responded to his idiosyncratic baton technique with its customary flair, the work’s complexities dispatched with complete assurance.

Stravinsky’s  The Rite of Spring was given one of the most illuminating performances I’ve ever heard. Part of this stemmed from the position of the players – woodwinds raised above the strings, and brass and percussion even further from the rostrum – and their precision-engineered ensemble. From the work’s opening bassoon solo to the closing sacrificial dance, this account was marked by crystal clear ensemble: bass clarinet gurgled, syncopated brass jived and incisive timpani strokes all added to the jamboree. At the climax to the “Procession of the Sage”, two washboards – replacing guiros – caught the ear, and while its sound is somewhat metallic, it reminded me of Robert Craft's striking image of “a giant locust rubbing its appendages together”. There was unease for Part Two’s nocturnal music with two solo trumpets bringing a chill to the air. But for all the clarity there were times when I wondered if Bychkov had forgotten this is music to arouse fierce, elemental passions, and this ingredient felt strangely absent. Despite that, I loved the performance all the same.