Semyon Bychkov Conducts Mahler’s Third. A Qualified Success.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mahler: Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano), Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 1.4.2012 (MB)

Mahler:  Symphony no.3

Many recent, or relatively recent, Mahler performances have proved disappointing. Part of the problem has been that there have simply been too many, or rather too many unnecessary, performances. Following the unfortunate conjunction of two anniversary years in 2010 and 2011, we might have hoped that things would have calmed down a little, and perhaps they have; it was striking that a concert one might have expected to sell out had not. Nevertheless, I entertained hopes that this might be a (Mahler) performance as it should be: a special event, rather than the latest instalment in a vainglorious ‘cycle’ by a conductor who had nothing to say about the music, or had merely inappropriate things to say about it. This was, I think, the first time I had heard Semyon Bychkov in Mahler, though I have had occasion to admire him in a number of other composers, not least Wagner and Strauss. However, my hopes were only partially fulfilled on this occasion, despite a good number of virtues to Bychkov’s and indeed to the LSO’s performance.

Alarm bells rang at the very opening, at its sheer volume and, perhaps more to the point, its seeming militarism. Yes, Mahler marks the eight horns fortissimo and so on, but the LSO sounded more in Star Wars than in Mahler mode. Part of this, I am sure, was a matter of the Barbican acoustic. Indeed, throughout, I could not help but wonder how different the performance might have sounded in the larger Royal Festival Hall, even the generally accursed Royal Albert Hall, let alone a more favoured venue abroad. That said, I do not remember feeling quite so brutalised when Bernard Haitink led a performance from the Berlin Philharmonic in the same hall of the same symphony a few years ago (2004). I also could not help but wonder whether Bychkov was hearing Mahler partly through the ears of Shostakovich. Doubtless many find this a valid, even a welcome, approach; for me, however, it serves only to bring to mind Boulez’s acid observation about pressings of olive oil and the Russian composer as the ‘second, or even third, pressing of Mahler’. Bychkov imparted straightforward direction to his rhythmically alert traversal of this vast movement that was undoubtedly welcome, strongly contrasted with the dreadfully mannered disfigurations visited upon it last year by Sir Simon Rattle (‘an incoherent mess’, I wrote at the time). Thematic intimations of what was to come, both in this movement and beyond, were clearly signalled. Yet the character of the music often seemed to be misjudged – and I deliberately add ‘seemed to be’, since I appreciate that others may have good reason to think differently. Certainly one’s appreciation of the marching music’s near-barbarism was likely to depend on one’s appreciation not only of Shostakovich but also of Mahler sounding close to him. Ultimately, I missed a sense of the metaphysical; it was all too earth-bound.

Again, experience of the second movement would have depended upon one’s assessment of its character – and the relation of that character to what was heard. It opened with a heightened sense of fantasy, redolent of early Stravinsky, perhaps even Debussy: striking and not at all what I had been expecting. Whilst open to the idea, I can imagine that many might have thought it a little wide of the mark. Bychkov’s wide tempo fluctuations were also striking, the basic tempo a perfectly justifiable reading of ‘Sehr mässig’, other sections really rather fast indeed, perhaps too much so. Some of the massed violin playing I found schmaltzy in character: less Strauss than Korngold. There was, however, some lovingly handled rubato to savour, and the ending proved quite magical, the fantastical sonority working especially well here. As a whole, however, and this observation might be writ large for the symphony as a whole, I wondered whether Bychkov was a little too intent to follow Mahler’s hyperbolic claim that a symphony ‘must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’ Clearly nothing embraces everything; some aspects of the world will always be omitted or simply irrelevant.

The third movement was nicely contrasted, perky woodwind contributing significantly to its character. Moreover, Bychkov skilfully combined, contrasted even, the competing demands of Beethovenian purpose and a true sense of mystery, the music sometimes on the verge of, but only on the verge of, modernistic disintegration. I still felt that the brass could be on the brash, overpowering side, but the posthorn solos (Christopher Deacon, flugelhorn) were beautifully played and ‘accompanied’. Whether the requisite sense of the metaphysical was truly present in Bychkov’s reading, I was less sure; at times, this seemed more of a landscape than whatever else it might have been. There remained, however, much to admire.

Enter Christianne Stotijn. (And let us skate over the applause some members of the audience thought appropriate at that moment.) I am afraid I found her contribution quite misjudged. The words were admirably clear and seemingly ‘meant’; yet she acted her ‘part’ as if she were a character in an opera, an impression that was heard as much as seen. At least the oboe’s ‘hinaufziehen’ marking was not turned into something grotesque: as convincing a middle-way as I have heard between a sober, old-style performance and the downright silly ‘effect’ the likes of Rattle impose upon the music. Both Bychkov and oboist Domenico Orlando should be accorded thanks for that. The following movement was sung with a delightful lilt, the choral forces on excellent form. Again, however, Stotijn’s delivery was weirdly operatic – especially for one who has made her name in Lieder. Her intonation also at times left a great deal to be desired.

It was quite a journey, then, and to my ears at least not always a journey travelled along the best-chosen path, but the great slow movement with which Mahler concludes or consummates his symphony turned out to be a triumph unalloyed. Its strains emerged beautifully, almost imperceptibly, from the final bar of its predecessor. The LSO’s string tone was warm, never too bright. Bychkov’s reading was possessed of a quiet dignity from which the music could bloom as ‘naturally’ as one might ever have imagined. Such blooming was variegated, however; goal-direction was ever-present but anything but simplistic. The conductor’s command of line remained second to none, though, permitting us to hear the movement as if in a single breath. There were occasional imperfections, but they served only to emphasise that the musicians were humans, not automatons. This movement at least was the work of a great conductor. I wished that I could hear a new reading of the symphony as a whole in the light of what we had now observed.


Mark Berry