Czech Philharmonic’s Mahler at Edinburgh: grown men waggle cowbells with joyful abandon

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2022 [9] – Mahler: Czech Philharmonic / Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Usher Hall, 21.8.2022. (SRT)

Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic © Jessica Shurte

Mahler – Symphony No.7

The Czech Philharmonic might not be the first orchestra that springs to mind when you are considering the world’s great Mahler orchestras, but they are adamant that Mahler is one of their own. After all, he was born in Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic, and no orchestra on earth has a greater heritage in the composer’s Seventh Symphony: Mahler himself conducted them at its 1908 premiere in Prague.

So, you could argue the symphony is as natural a pick for them as Dvořák, Janáček or Smetana, and they certainly play it as to the manner born (which, I suppose, they are). This is probably Mahler’s most eclectically kaleidoscopic score, a title for which there is a lot of competition, and the orchestra embrace that by playing the heck out of it. There was fantastic confidence in the full tutti playing, with a brilliantly assertive tone to the charging Allegro con fuoco theme of the first movement, and the hell-for-leather energy of the Rondo Finale was remarkable.

The solos were knockouts, too. The opening tenor horn solo was electric in both its volume and its assertiveness, and that set the tone for brass of brilliant zing, especially in the horns of the first Nachtmusik movement. The quieter moments were every bit as well observed, though, such as the dusky solo viola in the Scherzo, or the gurgling winds in the second Nachtmusik.

Semyon Bychkov, the orchestra’s Music Director, did a good job of steering what, as a consequence of that eclecticism, surely qualifies as Mahler’s least coherent score. He didn’t try and impose order on something that defies that approach: instead, he took each movement as a world of its own, managing the internal transitions with great expertise, and even injecting some shadowy humour into the three central movements. This orchestra has been playing this symphony for longer than anyone else: if they can’t make sense of it then no one can, and they followed Bychkov by larking their way through each movement as best they could. The highlight of that approach? I don’t think you will ever see grown men waggling their cowbells with such joyful abandon.

Simon Thompson

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 28th August at a variety of venues across the city. Click here for details.

Leave a Comment