Shostakovich, Bychkov’s secret weapon
The conductor directed the Fifth Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Philharmonie without exaggeration. Just as he had in 1986.
The first time I heard Semyon Bychkov conduct Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was at the Salle Pleyel in 1986. The newly nationalised American–Russian conductor was just 33. As well as galvanizing the audience, his performance so impressed the Orchestre de Paris that he was immediately offered the title of Musical Director following Daniel Barenboim. The same year, he made a recording of the work with the Berlin Philharmonic – still Karajan’s Orchestra – for Philips. Asked about his successor, the God of the baton only mentioned one name: that of Semyon Bychkov. It was clearly too much pressure to be placed on the shoulders of a modest and uncalculating man, and filled with pitfalls.
The 1990s were not the easiest for Bychkov, but they made him stronger both musically and psychologically. Throughout this time however, although he made his mark in Wagner and Strauss, Shostakovich remained at the core of his repertoire, his life-line.
Last Monday, thirty-two years later, it was Shostakovich’s Fifth that he again chose to conduct at Paris’ Philharmonie. His hair, jet black at the time, is still abundant but now white. His gestures, which were previously expansive and free, have become calmer and more concentrated but no less powerful. At 65, the young wolf has become a master. But not only is there no trace of routine in his approach to this music whose secrets he understands completely but, it is as if maturity has enabled him to touch the very heart of the music without any hint of distraction, hyperbole or excess, temptations that are easy to succumb to in music that is not devoid of pathos.
And we can hear for ourselves that Shostakovich has everything to gain: not only does the clarity of architecture not detract from the emotion, it increases it, allowing one to focus only on the essentials. The progressions are smooth, the tension never falters, and each episode is characterized with a total tonal accuracy. It gives the rare impression that one is hearing the work, and nothing but the work, rather than something that is filtered through the subjectivity of the interpreter, while knowing that it is an illusion.
Happiness would probably not have been so complete had Bychkov not had this most precious instrument, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, with him this evening. It is good to admire the power of the Berlin Philharmonic and the refined elegance of Vienna, but there always is a special place in our hearts for the Dutch orchestra. Its full sound and warm veneer, somewhere between gold and velvet, is of a depth and nobility that is almost unparalleled. The burnished colour of the strings, the natural sound of the winds, the unabashed intensity of the brass, the compact percussive force of the drums, all balanced naturally, allowing the famous “persistent strings” to continue to pierce you until the final denouement, when they are joined by the rest of the orchestra but never covered. The conductor’s physical and emotional investment was such that it took a few seconds before he turned to greet the public, which had already erupted into applause.