Semyon Bychkov Impresses Again With the BBC Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Martinů, Shostakovich: Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos), Semyon Bychkov (conductor), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican Hall, London, 16.1.2014 (GDn)

Martinů: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60, ‘Leningrad’

The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays well for Semyon Bychkov. He’s a disciplined conductor and has an excellent baton technique, allowing him to unify this orchestra in a way that few others manage. He has an ear for detail, in balance and ensemble, but even more so in phrasing. Nothing is left to chance. That’s not to say his interpretations lack lyricism, or that he’s unwilling to give soloists space: he is, and the passages of relative freedom he allows the players complement the more emphatically led tuttis. In fact, Bychkov gets the very best out of every orchestra he conducts, but with the BBC SO there seems to be a special chemistry that works to everybody’s advantage. He currently holds the more-or-less honorary Günter Wand Conducting Chair with the orchestra, which sadly doesn’t guarantee as many London appearances as audiences here would like. But it’s currently his only official position – surprising, given his eminence – so perhaps we can look forward to a few more concerts with him in forthcoming seasons.

This evening’s concert opened with Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which was a family affair, as the soloists were the Labèque sisters, one of whom is married to Bychkov. The score is typical Martinů, all saturated orchestral textures and dense, scurrying piano writing. The first movement is particularly impressive, as it lands running, at a pretty hectic pace, and then maintains the momentum for its entire duration. Then there is a slow movement, dominated by woodwind solos and ensembles, and then the finale, which is a bit more rhythmically complex and involves a greater range of textures and tempos than the first. The BBC SO’s previous Chief Conductor, Jiři Bělohlávek, led the orchestra in a complete Martinů symphony cycle a few years ago and trained the players well in the composer’s unique style. Despite the density and complexity of his orchestration, Martinů always harks back to the sounds of Czech folk music. The players this evening really managed to project that sense of rustic simplicity through the dense layering of the music. The Labèque sisters gave a convincing account of the solo parts, all very emotive and mobile, with lots of writhing heads and swishing hair. I thought they could have hammered out the important rhythms and cross-rhythms a bit more, though; Martinů obviously expects those to come through – though he doesn’t do much to help them in his orchestration. A bit more definition in the solo lines might have helped clarify the shape and direction of this often wayward and opaque music.

There was nothing wayward or opaque about the opening movement of the ‘Leningrad’, quite the opposite. Bychkov has something of a reputation as a Shostakovich interpreter, and this performance demonstrated exactly why. He’s also a Leningrader himself, which must make a difference. In this first movement everything came together. From the opening unison phrase it was clear that a great deal of time and effort had gone into getting the style and phrasing right. The notes were slightly detached and the phrasing slightly clipped, the better to delineate the shape of the line. Balances were ideal throughout this tricky movement, and the gradual climax through the invasion theme section was perfectly paced. The string sound was energetic, but had the dark quality required of the much of the music. Excellent woodwind solos, excellent snare drum too.

If the remainder of the symphony didn’t quite maintain the standard of excellence set by this first movement, it certainly came close. Some fatigue was evident in the later movements, and the players’ control of their tone colour, and of balance within sections, suffered a little. But it was still a great performance. Bychkov allowed the music of the middle movements some space to breathe, bringing some poetry to this otherwise austere context. Not too much though, and the discipline was always maintained. And in the finale, he was able to at least acknowledge the undertones of dissent and doubt, yet his tempos remained disciplined, always focussing the music towards its inevitably triumphant conclusion. And when it came, no doubts remained. Even at these loudest dynamics, the balance within the orchestra continued to be finely judged, as did the tone colours, especially from the blazing brass. A triumphant conclusion to a memorable concert.

Gavin Dixon

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard until 23rd Jan at: