13th September 2019
The programme for the 69th concert of this year’s Proms was the Overture and Three Dances from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride followed by the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with the second part devoted to Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony . The Czech Philharmonic was on splendid form and the relationship with its new Music Director appeared to work like a charm. The acoustics of Albert Hall are well known to be treacherous, but Bychkov and the Orchestra worked wonders with orchestral balance and clarity, without losing an iota of nerve and enthusiasm.
The Smetana selection had nerve and enthusiasm in abundance. In the Overture, the flexible articulation in the strings was perfect with a beautiful edge to the wood. The subsequent polka was magnificent with an effective and elegant rubato, a contagious rhythmic impulse for the Furiant and a thrilling final dance. Smetana’s works were contagious and came across with joyful enthusiasm. If it was difficult to get the balance in the acoustics for Smetana, it was even more so for the scene with Tatiana (known as the Letter Scene ) from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. I had not heard the Russian soprano Elena Stikhina before. I was impressed by her beautiful, warm voice, which projected well throughout her journey, and drew expressively on the unique mixture of lyricism and drama in the scene. She was splendidly accompanied by Bychkov and the Czech musicians, with a special mention for the strings and the oboe, clarinet and horn soloists.
However, the focus of the evening fell inevitably on the devastating score that is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8. Composed at the height of the Nazi invasion of Russia, the composer declared to Volkov in his controversial book Testimony that “the war brought much new pain and destruction, but I have not forgotten the terrible years before the war; that’s what all my symphonies are about since the fourth, including the seventh and the eighth. ” And, reaffirming what he said before, “… and then all the misery was attributed to the war, as if only during the war people had been tortured and killed.” The eighth is, of course, a sombre, deeply tragic score and torn in the pain of the long first movement. Even though the climax is expected, when it comes it is overwhelming, even more so when it is performed with the intensity which Bychkov drew from the Czech Philharmonic.
The subsequent English horn solo (a sensational instrumentalist, by the way) was creepy and devastating. The Allegretto was bitterly incisive, with outstanding playing from the winds, especially the piccolo, bassoon and clarinet solos. Bychkov’s conducting of the third movement was extraordinary, with the magnificent violas sounding oppressive and obsessive with a graduated dynamic which the famous Russian maestro built to a tremendous climax moving to an ominous and bitter sadness, and the hopelessness of the Largo (the tuba here was also outstanding). There are those who see hope in recent times, particularly in the transition to the major key. Personally, I believe that it is fading, and behind the long notes of the flute and the strings is a drowned and sadly resigned anguish hidden behind a veil of false calm. Perhaps, deep down, Shostakovich is expressing in that peculiar way of his, a message that seems to tell us “beware, we are coming out of one horror, but another will remain…”. Throughout this long, intense and devastating journey, Bychkov and his magnificent orchestra took us on an experience as perfectly constructed in the music as it was intense and devastating to the emotions. After the pauses between the first and second movements, the public had applauded. Following the final Allegretto, Bychkov was concentrated and there was a sepulchral silence in the Albert Hall. Only, many seconds later, when he dropped his arms, came the ovation that justly rewarded his formidable interpretation.