United Kingdom Rachmaninov, Verbytsky, Smetana: Yuja Wang (piano); Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 15.3.2022. (CC)
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1 (1891)
Mykhailo Verbytsky – Shche ne vmerla Ukraina (the Ukrainian national anthem)
Smetana – Má vlast (1874-79)
This was a significant concert in a number of ways. Firstly, this was the first one in the Barbican Hall by a visiting international orchestra since the onset of the pandemic; secondly, it included a performance of the Ukrainian national anthem (see below). The focus was very much on the Smetana, itself a statement of the importance of place, of belonging.
Though to begin with it was Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto, premiered in the Spring of 1892 and dedicated to Alexander Siloti (and revised in 1917). This is a youthful work written after the composer had graduated from the Moscow Conservatory and is full of the excesses of youth: massive contrasts, long, yearning melodies, ecstatic heights of virtuosity. And no-one is better equipped for those virtuoso challenges than Yuja Wang, whose technical abilities remain nonpareil. The finger dexterity is remarkable, as is her ability to convey full tone in a whispered pianissimo (another just as important part of piano technique). And yet … I have certainly heard Wang more involved than this, and a moment of slight miscommunication in the first movement seemed to underline this. Perhaps the acoustics played a part, too: the Czech Philharmonic is a powerful instrument in and of itself, and the Barbican can exacerbate balance problems. It was all too easy for the orchestra to swamp the soloist. However, this is clearly a piece Bychkov feels passionately about. He seemed keen to emphasise the proximity of Rachmaninov’s writing to Tchaikovsky. It was in the cadenza that Wang settled, and it was in the second movement (Andante cantabile) that real depth appeared. Beginning with a nice touch of horn vibrato so characteristic of the Czech lands, this movement dared to explore deeply interior spaces, a true nocturne, set itself in high contrast to the post-Lisztian sparkle of the finale. The faster sections boasted spectacular pianistic definition, but the slower sections flew close to schmaltz (they don’t need to, as anyone who has heard, say, Krystian Zimerman in this piece will know).
Perhaps because of the length of the programme, there were no encores, either from Wang (very much expected and delivered, usually) or from the orchestra at the concert’s close – but there was a prolonged ovation for Wang.
Bychkov has been outspoken in his anti-war feelings (a full statement can be found on his website here) and he delivered a similarly impassioned speech at the beginning of the second half, dedicating the performance of the Smetana to the people of the Ukraine, closing with the words ‘Slava ukraini’ (Glory to Ukraine) and a stirring, heartfelt performance of the Ukrainian national anthem, which brought almost all of the Barbican Hall audience to its feet in solidarity. A remarkable moment.
Perhaps in recognition of the length of the concert, a new troupe of wind and brass players came in at the work’s midpoint (after the third symphonic poem). This was to be a performance of much strength – evident from the forthright pair of harps at the beginning, perhaps. Certainly Bychkov sees the work in the grandest terms, allowing the monumental stature of Vyšehrad (The High Castle) to register in no uncertain terms. A shame the strings’ bloom was slightly dulled in the Barbican, but his was a fine performance, as was the most famous of the six movements, ‘Vltava’ (the river that runs through Bohemia, and, indeed, through Prague). Bychkov’s brisk tempo allowed the two flutes to chase each other like so many water nymphs frolicking, while an alertness to Smetana’s accentuation gave the piece real dynamism. A special word for the brass section, and their legendary creaminess of tone in this movement before the drama of ‘Šárka’, the legendary figure who avenged herself on males after experiencing infidelity via a massacre. Bychkov’s close was explicitly furioso, as if to carve out two halves to Má vlast.
After the personnel reshuffle, ‘From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’ indeed heralded change. Perhaps other conductors have found more of the Czech pastoral in the woodwinds in this movement, but few have found such exactitude in the high string fugato. Only ‘Tábor’ (after a Hussite stronghold) felt weak. Smetana creates a deliberately bleak sonic territory, replete with a feeling of abandonment at the opening. It is fragmented and difficult to bring off, and Bychkov seemed not quite to do so, although he shaped the way to the climax later well. Try this orchestra under Jiří Bělohlávek on Decca (2019) to hear how this movement can work supremely well from first to last. The final movement, ‘Blaník’, refers in its title to the hill under which Czech warriors sleep until St Wenceslas causes them to arise to save the Czech nation. This was Bychkov and the orchestra’s finest hour, finely calibrated, superbly articulated by the Czech strings, and a truly rousing close.
This was the first of two concerts that comprise the Czech Philharmonic’s Barbican residency in March.