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18th August 2019

The Times

Paul Driver

(…)The fourth Wood novelty was Mahler’s Symphony No 4. Wood directed the British premiere at a Prom in the old Queen’s Hall in 1905. This was given by the BBC SO under Semyon Bychkov, with Christina Gansch a near-ideal soloist. Bychkov seems to oblige his players to give an excellent performance, stamped with his personality. Everything flowed beautifully, though he wasn’t taking chances, and laid on an extra harp for good resonance.

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14th August 2019

The Herald 

Keith Bruce

AS the BBC’s Scottish Symphony Orchestra was giving a concert to celebrate the 60th birthday of conductor Martyn Brabbins at the Albert Hall in London, the house band of the Proms travelled to the Edinburgh Festival with a programme that would sit very comfortably anywhere.

In the hands of Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov, Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony were glorious celebrations of the lighter side to composers whose reputation is for very serious, even gloomy music. Without diminishing a note of the performance of it, this was always enjoyable music, from its first note to the last.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein, Russian born but US educated in Boston and New York, is already well-known to Scottish audiences, but he will have made more friends this week with a performance of the concerto that was a model of lightning-fingered articulacy. Bychkov took the opening movement very briskly indeed, and the SO strings were superb in the Andante, lush, certainly, but always precise, while crisp playing from the winds were Gerstein’s perfect partner in the finale. The soloist’s encore was a quite startling speedy, highly individual, reading of a Chopin waltz

Bychkov brought the lightest of touches to the Mahler as well, but one in which every element was clear. From the sleigh bells to the ensemble of the low strings, there was almost a “young person’s guide to the orchestra” feel to this performance, and that was its strength. With fine soloists across the wind section, principal horn Nicholas Korth was, of course, the busiest, with a lovely clear tone, although the solo contributions of orchestra leader Igor Yuzefovich sat perhaps a little low in the mix. That might also have been said of the final movement song by soprano Christine Gansch, although the almost girlish manner in which she sang it was arguably exactly what the composer specified.

It was the way time seemed to hang in the air during the later bars of the third movement that was the heart of this performance, however. When there was a blessed pause before the applause after harpist Manon Morris’s resonant last notes, it was built on respect for the symphony’s most spiritual music.

 

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14th August 2019

Just before this concert began, I got a bit of a start when I read in David Fanning’s programme note that Shostakovich’s second piano concerto is “the last piano concerto to retain a place in the standard concert repertoire.” He’s right, of course, but isn’t it striking that no piano concerto written since 1957 has achieved regularity in our concert halls?

I guess that makes Shostakovich’s a bit more special, much more than the miniature that it’s often perceived to be. It sounded superb in this performance, with Kirill Gerstein’s jazz background coming into its own in his merry, free performance which, nevertheless, conjured up a first movement cadenza of remarkable lucidity. And who knew that Semyon Bychkov has such a marvellous light-hearted side? He conducted both the outer movements with the lightest of touches, with a slight hint of mania creeping in as the movements progressed. The finale, in particular, sounded like a spinning top about to topple off its axis, but the preceding slow movement was blissfully peaceful while, nevertheless, refusing to linger and always moving steadily forwards.

Shostakovich’s crazy-paving is a world away from the slowly unfolding poetry of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, though here Bychkov’s grip was every bit as secure, with each movement’s character beautifully shaped. I especially loved the lolloping Ländler of the Scherzo, whose devilishly sour violin solo competed for impishness with the gurgling winds and a rakish solo horn.

Throughout the symphony, in fact, the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra had a special touch of colour, particularly in the wind solos, each of which was like a carefully etched cameo character. You could say the same about Christina Gansch’s soprano, which disarmingly adopted some childish mannerisms that took us closer than normal to the child’s eye vision of heaven; plangent in places, and even a trifle bossy at times. The horn’s wonderful impression of St Luke’s ox helped enormously too.

The strings were bright and clean throughout, the violins lacking any hint of schmaltz in the first movement. Perhaps it was a bit too sincere, though, and the cellos in the slow movement, while warm enough, were just a little business-like. That meant that this was a Mahler 4 to enjoy for its sheer beauty and virtuosity, but you’d need to look elsewhere if you wanted the hint of danger and sedition that runs through Mahler’s score.

 

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12th August 2019

Rarely has the BBC Symphony Orchestra sounded in such fine shape. Not since the halcyon days of Günter Wand conducting Bruckner, Schubert and Beethoven have performances seemed as impeccably rehearsed and coherent as these. It seems only fitting, then, that Semyon Bychkov’s position with the orchestra is the Günter Wand Conducting Chair, a position created for him in 2012. Deliberate or not, there is the distinct feeling that there is an element of historical continuity here.

Bychkov, who has recently taken up the mantle of Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic, has demonstrated in the past a close affinity with the music of Detlev Glanert. Mark Berry reported on a performance of Brahms-Fantasie – ‘heliogravure’ here, while in 2009 Bychkov conducted Glanert’s Shoreless River at the Proms. Bychkov’s Avie recording of Glanert’s Theatrum bestiarum with Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony with the WDR Orchestra, Cologne is something of a classic (review). Here, we had two interlocking aspects of Glanert’s art. For Weites Land (subtitled ‘Musik mit Brahms’) we have a piece that is inspired by, nods to and pays homage to Brahms; in Einsamkeit, we have a brilliantly achieved orchestration of one of Schubert’s more extended Lieder.

This was the UK premiere of Weites Land, a 12-minute piece that takes its harmonic material from the first eight notes of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. As new music goes, it is remarkably successful, in that by the end of the year it will have clocked up over 40 performances. While the soundscape is modernist (a gurning, keening opening), there are undeniably Romantic gestures, including a Mahlerian trumpet moment and thick, active textures that seem reminiscent of Zemlinsky. Harmonically, some simultaneities have a decidedly more Brahmsian flavour than others. Occasionally, the music even ventures into the filmic. The BBC orchestra was in fine, confident form (a particularly beautiful gesture for three trombones was particularly memorable).

Glanert has orchestrated Brahms’ Four Serious Songs: here, we were offered instead his 2009 orchestration of Schubert’s 1818 song Einsamkeit, to a text by Mayerhofer, which speaks of man’s isolation in six stages of life. Schubert’s setting lasts some 20 minutes. It starts with a desire for loneliness, a wish attained at the close. Glanert’s orchestration is remarkable, utterly respecting Schubert but illuminating at each and every turn. The piece is effectively a cantata. These extended Lieder are an utter joy, as the exploration of Schubert Lieder over at the Wigmore Hall has repeatedly shown; to bring one to our attention in this way is a gift. It is clear Bychkov understands Glanert’s orchestral writing perfectly, while the wonderful Christina Gansch sang with an easy command, her intervals exceptionally pure and clean, her sense of line impeccable. For the opening stanza, which includes a statement of that desire for loneliness (stated in quotes in Mayrhofer’s text: ‘Gib mir die Fülle der Einsamkeit’ – Give me my fill of solitude), there was a feeling of beautiful stillness. Glanert’s orchestration of Schubert’s harmonies can accentuate the frisson of angst; at other times, tripping woodwind can suddenly delight. The profundity of text and music demand a full frequency response, and this performance delivered, particularly in achieving the most electric pianissimos. The funeral march in the orchestra at ‘Gib mir die Fülle der Düsterkeit’ (Give me my fill of gloom) held a Mahlerian pathos, while Bychkov’s characteristic attention to detail paid off multiply, just one example being the perfectly balanced brass chord at the moment that those in mourning greet the survivors of war.

Gansch has a darker soprano sound when required, too, which she used to fine effect at the song’s close. A remarkable first half, stimulating and emotionally engaging.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony received a radiant performance, one full of illumination from within, in one sense – and one that gifted illumination of the score, too, in its focus on Mahler’s contrapuntal, linear workings. There was at times a Boulez-like sense of transparency to Mahler’s workings, but coupled with deep emotional engagement. Throughout, Bychkov’s speeds exuded a feeling of rightness; more, he understood the value of Mahler’s juxtapositioning of panels of music, so that Luftpausen were exquisite. Leader Igor Yuzefovich’s solos were remarkable, pure of tone and intonation (some fantastic hairpins) and joined at one point in the second movement by the evidently equally talented first desk violinist Cellerina Park – the two just shone. That second movement also held some phenomenal clarinet work – the section sounded just so Mahlerian.

Gansch entered between the second and third movements. The third turned out to be the very sonic definition of Mahler’s ‘Ruhevoll’ (restful) indicator, strings sublime, Helen Clinton’s oboe like a ray of light. One of Bychkov’s many strengths is that he does not need stretched-out tempos to be profound (as the finale to his recent recording of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony with the Czech Philharmonic shows). Proper pianissimi, tempos related impeccably, and even a shadow of the spirit of the dance resulted in a remarkable experience. Some lovely contributions from Principal Horn Nicholas Korth were notable – he was consistently excellent throughout, in fact. Intelligently delineated rather than emotionally saturated, this was an inner journey, the only continuation of which could be in Heaven. And so it was, with Gansch once more in top form, fresh-voiced and full of wonder at her heavenly surroundings, and with perfect attention to text: the dotted rhythms of the opening lines were full of life. Her diction, too, was the perfect blend of enunciation and line (‘Metzger Herodes’ is surely always a bit of a mouthful to sing). Very little vibrato kept her sound at its purest, while Bychkov was with her every step of the way. The close was a remarkable leave-taking into the realm of bliss.

 

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