Semyon Bychkov conducts the Royal Academy Symphony Orchestra in a well-received Mahler 3

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Stephanie Wake-Edwards (mezzo-soprano), Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Royal Academy of Music Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.6.2022. (CK)

Semyon Bychkov conducts Stephanie Wake-Edwards (mezzo-soprano) and the RAM Symphony Orchestra © Frances Marshall

Mahler – Symphony No.3 in D minor

This concert – part of the Royal Academy of Music’s bicentenary celebrations – intrigued me. I had never seen Semyon Bychkov conduct anything, let alone Mahler; though I well remember his much-missed younger brother Yakov Kreizberg giving a wonderful performance of this very symphony during his tenure with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. However, along with everyone else who consults the late Tony Duggan’s detailed and comprehensive online reviews of Mahler symphonies on CD, I knew that Duggan considered Bychkov’s Third with the WDR Symphony Orchestra to be about the only modern contender to challenge the ‘classics’ (Barbirolli, Horenstein, Kubelík, Bernstein). Bychkov’s recording is hard to find: having witnessed this Royal Festival Hall performance, I would probably bite the hand off anyone who was able to lend it to me.

(Since writing this, I have heard that Bychkov is embarking on a Mahler cycle with his current orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic: if this is true, it is exciting news indeed.)

The performers on this occasion were the Royal Academy Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with mezzo-soprano soloist Stephanie Wake-Edwards and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. The performance, though not flawless, was extraordinarily fine. The astounding first movement – from the opening roar of the nine horns to its joyfully cataclysmic conclusion – was thrillingly done: Bychkov seemed able to make room for all its multifarious moods and colours within a strong sense of forward momentum, and the players were with him all the way. I don’t think I have ever heard the structurally crucial trombone solos played more confidently and characterfully than they were here by Isobel Daws; and the winding duet for violin (Iona McDonald) and horn (Annemarie Federle) at the movement’s still centre was a thing of rare beauty.

Bychkov took risks. At the two points in the first movement where the music seems to burst through into another dimension, he held it back almost to stasis, as if the music was stunned to find itself face to face with an infinity which only the finale will be able to comprehend.

I recall Sir Simon Rattle remarking that, for all the monumentality of the symphonies, Mahler (I paraphrase from memory) ‘puts in every leaf and flower, so that they are actually made up of very tiny things.’ So it was here: this juggernaut of a movement teems with tiny solos, etched in by each player with vividness and relish. So also in the lighter second and third movements, from the lilting oboe that opens the second to the offstage posthorn in the third (well played, but too close for its magic to work fully). When the boisterous animals return – a passage that Mahler marked ‘Rude!’ – the playing was positively raucous.

The quiet sounds of the Nietzsche movement were crystal clear. Wake-Edwards sang with passion and commitment; but – as is so often the case – she was a mezzo rather than the true contralto this music needs. When she wasn’t singing, she sat at ease with her crossed legs, which made her look rather too relaxed for this musical context.

The brief, carolling fifth movement almost stole the show. Both choirs – boys and women – sang from memory. The bimm-bamming boys were fine, but the ladies were electric: buzzing with energy and bursting to tell us their good-news story (in essence, a lively playground version of George Herbert’s Love Bade me Welcome). They pinned us back in our seats. I had an inkling of what those unsuspecting Bethlehem shepherds must have felt when the sky was suddenly full of singing angels. It was dazzling. It blew away the darkness of the previous movement; and – how can I put this? – it pushed us higher up Mahler’s ascending Chain of Being, up into the light, so that we were already rapt as the finale stole in.

I wonder how many times I have read a reviewer of a youth orchestra commenting that the only thing that let them down was a lack of fullness in the string sound. These young players – or many of them – are presumably on the threshold of orchestral careers: in their hands the finale glowed from the start, increasing in depth and richness as the movement unfolded. The moments of anguish and doubt were startlingly vivid, the trumpets screaming over the orchestral tumult; and although Bychkov’s handling of the final page made it harder than usual for the timpanists to synchronise, the ending was everything it should be. The reception, from a Festival Hall packed with families, friends and well-wishers, was a performance in itself, and an affecting one.

Later, as I walked back from the coach station, I turned 74. What better birthday present could a music-lover wish for?

Chris Kettle

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