28th May 2017
So much Tchaikovsky is unusual: the first piano concerto has become the hit of the season in Munich. This has the advantage that one gets to hear different interpretations of the work. On this occasion, Jean-Yves Thibaut was due to play at the Gasteig with the Munich Philharmonic, but he was replaced by Kirill Gerstein. One was doubly curious because Gerstein chose to play the second account of the concerto, revised in 1879.
The Russian pianist came to the USA as a 14-year-old, where he traded jazz for classical music and quickly began a career. He attacked the first movement of the concerto with passion, moving comfortably and easily into the pathos of the “Molto maestoso”, where he took the expressive force of Tchaikovsky’s intensity in his stride, revealing its taut rhetoric. In the big cadenza he matched the fervour of the exuberant orchestral writing, over-pinning it with virtuoso brilliance, which then found its shining apotheosis in the jubilant “con fuoco” finale. The differences between this and the third version, which is mostly played today, proved to be marginal, relating only to details in the piano part of the first movement and the conclusion of the last movement.
Tchaikovsky expert Semyon Bychkov’s conducting was deeply sympathetic to Gerstein’s playing, but he showed his real credentials in the second half of the evening with the performance of Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique”. With both passion and precision, he guided the large forces of the Philharmonic through all the refinements of the work, making it the highlight of the evening and of the orchestra: drawing out all the subtleties such as the delicate pianissimos in the “reverie” and the ghost dances in the “Dream of the Night of the Sabbath”; the finest colours from the winds in “Scene in the Fields”; the elegant wit of “A Ball”, and the magisterial violence of “March to the Scaffold”
19th May 2017
Do you ever wish that Richard Strauss had composed symphonies when he was at his peak? If so, Franz Schmidt’s symphonies could be the answer.
Massive, extravagant, indulgently super-romantic, they are Straussian in outline, and even often sound like Strauss.
The conductor Semyon Bychkov is a champion of the Symphony No 2 and makes a good case for the work in this performance, sumptuously played by the Vienna Philharmonic, in which Schmidt himself was once a cellist.
The symphonic interlude from Strauss’s opera Intermezzo makes an apt filler.
18th May 2017
The charismatic Greek conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, also cast light on the works of neglected composers like Franz Schmidt (1874-1939), chosen by the Nazis as Austria’s most significant composer once Schoenberg and Zemlinsky had been forced into exile. Even though the music remains rooted in the rut created by Brahms and the outstanding Richard Strauss (an enchanted interlude from his autobiographic comedy Intermezzo is also included on the recording), the melodic invention in the Second Symphony is worthy of the attention that it has received in the past from Mitropoulos and Zubin Mehta and, now from Semyon Bychkov. Bychkov leads the superb players of the Wiener Philharmoniker in a distinguished performance, which is more than just a self-referential tribute to their own tradition (Schmidt was in the cello-section of the Viennese orchestra for some time)
15th May 2017
It’s a nice surprise that isn’t a nasty one. ‘Semyon Bychkov conducts Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. Thus ran the bland headline for Friday evening’s concert with the Berlin Phil. The pompous music critic snorts, gets bored and awaits an entry of the most beautiful mediocrity. But wait though! This was glorious! It was so wonderful that one started to dream and to believe that it must have been a little bit like this, just a little, when the blessed Karajan celebrated Strauss here.
Certainly, the virtuosic polyphony,in the piece has been heard more clearly, but it is a long time since it has been performed with such a warm and flattering flow. The narrative, illustrative side of this autobiographically conceived tone poem is of practically no interest to Bychkov. That is really the key to this beguiling interpretation. Bychkov is concerned only with pure beauty: the extraordinary suppleness which comprises Strauss’ music, the breadth of the whole concept, which unfolds as naturally as the literary story-telling by the great Russian novelists, and in the end Bychkov’s refusal to set anything against the composer’s desire simply to please.
Such a pleasure-seeking course of action has become anathema in these musically enlightened times, as presented to us not least by the original instrument movement. That it is still possible simply to follow the current of the music and not to come across as embarrassing or cloying, is impressively demonstrated by Bychkov. He never imposes on the sound of the Philharmonic as Simon Rattle does in such emotionally laden music. He always knows where the stopping points are, where the endlessly organic streams of melody briefly gather in order to resume subsequently the journey full of yearning into the obviously unattainable. With precision Bychkov also marks the barbs where they appear, especially the upwards straining third in the introduction which to him has a particularly mordant effect.
But what is really remarkable is the giant arch which Bychkov creates from the violin solo to the end of the work interrupted only by the general pauses through which the music continues to resonate from deep within the silence. Playing with constant delight, the leader Noah Bendix-Balgley performed the solo both tenderly and emphatically and with unalloyed ease with regard to the technical challenges. Gautier Capucon who was the earlier soloist in Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto needs at least a mezzoforte marking in his score to reach top speed. He plucked the feathers of the first movement with exemplary precision right to the chicken’s neck as it were and with fine urgency. In the slow movement, his playing had a great emptiness. But it was not Shostakovich’s emptiness.