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12th April 2019

Bachtrack

Roy Westbrook

This programme really should not work that well. Three pieces by Shostakovich from 1957 sounds coherent enough, but those were a 20-minute,  relatively lightweight concerto, an obscure short piano solo, and a symphony once described as “film music without the film”. Yet the house was pretty full, considering they could all have heard it live at home. And excellence in performance can go a long way in such a listing.

Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major has a perky opening introducing the woodwind choir, who have plenty to do (the horns being the only brass in the work), much of it needing to be swift and rhythmically alert, which the BBC Symphony Orchestra players unfailingly were. Soloist, Alexei Volodin was very alert and rhythmic too, as well as properly classical, keeping the second subject in the main tempo. The skeletal piano writing can become hard in some hands, but Volodin made it sound bright and breezy but never brittle. His interplay with the skittish winds was a constant delight. Perhaps London’s usual parsimonious rehearsal time adds a little edge and excitement to such passages. The coda, one of the composer’s trademark versions of the galop from the William Tell Overture, was brilliantly executed.

The gem of the work is the central Andante, a lovely poetic meditation on the simplest lyrical material. Romantic in sentiment but early classical in dropping the winds for a slow movement, the BBC strings opened the with a melancholy tenderness, and Volodin caught the mood from his very first entry. The finale’s tentative opening anapaests (thus timidity knocks at the door?) were succeeded by a dazzling and dancing account of this keystone cops chase. The classically chaste scoring was briefly adulterated by the addition of a snare drum (this is Shostakovich after all) and the close was ebullient and joyful. Apparently in 2017 the work came 19th in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame. Well, Dimitri Dimitryevich wanted to reach a wide audience and might well have taken that accolade ahead of one of his Stalin Prizes. It takes no little craft to compose a lighter work of such calibre, and the performers never for a moment patronised the piece.

Once it was finished, Shostakovich wrote to Denisov that the Second Concerto had “no redeeming artistic merits”. Yet he himself performed and recorded it. If we want to be dismissive of any work by the great Russian then his Three Variations on a Theme by Glinka for solo piano makes a much softer target. 1957 was the centenary of Glinka’s death and these three modest numbers derive from a commemorative set of eleven variations from eight composers. There was impeccable craftsmanship of course in this curiosity, but it never adds up to much and did not sound especially characteristic. But it let us hear a bit more of Volodin’s keyboard mastery without the ritual of several returns to the platform before conceding a well-planned ‘spontaneous’ encore.

The Symphony no. 11 in G minor is subtitled “The year 1905” referring to the massacre before the Winter Palace of peasants petitioning the Tsar. The composer though also told one colleague “Don’t forget that I wrote the symphony in the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising,” which Soviet troops had brutally put down. The four movements play continuously, and employ a number of revolutionary songs, though they are as much for evocative as motivic purpose. And there is no more memorable sound in Shostakovich then the very opening of the work, before any song is heard. The haunting effect of divided strings and harp, followed by an ominous timpani motif and distant (i.e. muted) trumpet calls over quiet snare drum rolls superbly portray an icy, expectant, and very tense atmosphere. Bychkov struck just the right tempo, not too slow (dragging reduces the tension here).

But then Bychkov has form in this work, having made a recording of it with the Berlin Phil which is still a leader of the pack. The BBCSO can stake a claim also, having given the first performance outside Russia in 1958. But neither CD nor, I suspect, that Western premiere matched this matchless account. It’s hard to know which element to praise most. The BBC players were superb, and in every department – at the end it took a while for the conductor to get round them all for solo or section calls, as the applause – and cheers – went on. But he began, most unusually, with timpanist Antoine Bedewi, recognition for his heroic kettle-drumming throughout. But Semyon Bychkov too was a hero, not least for maintaining a compelling narrative drive, the tension never relenting right up until the final bell stroke died away. No one who had ever doubted the stature of the Eleventh could do so after this.

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12th April 2019

The Times

Neil Fisher

Semyon Bychkov balanced the themes of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 11 with flair and sophistication

Nothing in Shostakovich’s output sounds so much like skin, bone and metal as the Symphony No 11, The Year 1905. This was the year when a tsarist army fired on protesters in Palace Square in St Petersburg, killing hundreds. It’s all there in the music: the dusty rattle of the snare drum, the dry, jangling beat of wooden percussion, and the barrage of gunfire in merciless brass. With the strings mostly peeled away to reveal these orchestral innards — the most prominent voices in that section are the softly lamenting violas — we are not so much asked to reflect as to simply get as close as possible to a pointless, machine-like slaughter. Then recoil.

Shostakovich wrote the piece in 1957, the year marked in this BBC Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The timing may or may not be key; it’s alleged that the sphinx-like composer was, in fact, pointing the finger at the Soviets for their brutal crackdown in Hungary the year before. With a great technician such as Bychkov on the podium, the question was moot. He balanced the themes of the symphony with flair and sophistication: on the one hand, the eerie build-up to the massacre and its unfolding savagery; on the other, the communist songs that Shostakovich wordlessly folded into the orchestral fabric. There are many mind-numbing Shostakovich codas, but this one, with the BBC SO’s outstanding percussionists and timpanist worked up into a furious maelstrom, was especially . . . impressive seems like the wrong word. Horrifying would do.

Was the first half supposed to be light relief? Again, too tricky to tell. The composer’s Piano Concerto No 2 from 1957 banishes heavy brass and brings back tunes, particularly in the almost alarmingly mushy second movement. Yet Alexei Volodin’s cool and calculated performance suggested something more quizzical and unsettling, as did the driven, icy playing of the orchestra under Bychkov. There was no more help in Volodin’s solo follow-up — another side to Shostakovich in just one turbulent year. This was a rarity: Three Variations on a Theme by Glinka, its meagre subject swollen and simmered into vignettes that could have meant everything, or nothing.

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10th April 2019

Classical Source

Peter Reed

This Shostakovich concert veered between the very slight and the immensely portentous. These three works were all written in 1957. Stalin had died in 1953; there was the possibility of a less-malign Soviet authoritarianism hanging in the air; and this was blown away by the brutal suppression of Hungary in 1956.

You could look in vain, though, for coded messages in the Second Piano Concerto, which the composer wrote for his son Maxim. There are pages of Saint-Saëns-style brilliance, an irrepressible and spiky wit, a slow movement of dreamy tenderness, and a marvellous send-up of those finger-bending Hanon keyboard exercises the young Maxim may well have inflicted on his parents. Alexei Volodin was completely in the spirit of the Concerto’s sparkling invention, which showed the effortless precision and elegance of his fingerwork brilliantly. Semyon Bychkov and the BBCSO partnered him with equal finesse, yielding a well-judged touch of Chekhovian languor in the Andante.

The Variations on a Theme by Glinka were like a scheduled encore. Seven other Soviet composers also contributed Variations on the minimalist scrap from Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, a scrap that Volodin endowed with an ironic sense of importance. The third Variation is like a picture Mussorgsky might have hung in his exhibition, and Volodin, with characteristic astuteness, neatly exaggerated its preposterous grandeur. He is a marvellous artist, who peels away layers of meaning and expression in everything he plays, hooked to a fabulously discreet virtuosity.

Symphony 11 is in the Russian tradition of realising an epic slice of national history intended to speak to an equally epic Russian present. The first two movements graphically represent the Tsar’s savage solution to the people’s uprising of 1905, and the last two, rather like a big Passion setting, provide sympathetic commentary and expansion. Bychkov’s approach rather blurred the distinction, mainly down to his restless flow and momentum. He took just under an hour (Rostropovich, for instance, takes almost an hour and a quarter, and the result, particularly in the opening movements, is monumental) and he animated its drama into long stretches of cinematic verismo.

The BBCSO played superbly and idiomatically – the strings’ opening was like non-reflective grey ice, Antoine Bedewi’s implacable timpani role was all you needed to give Shostakovich’s sprawling canvas a sense of cohesion, and the plangent song-based solos – including trumpet, cor anglais and bassoon – became central to the revolutionary action with graphic directness. The violas’ withdrawal into the third movement ushered in the composer’s subversive ambiguity and pain, expertly steered by Bychkov, who made way for the Symphony’s annihilating climaxes in the Finale. There was just enough of a decay to the bells’ last word to suggest one of Shostakovich’s quizzical and destabilising question marks before applause rushed in.

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5th April 2019

Codalario

Pedro J. Lapeña Rey

Furthermore, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov, current Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic, the occasion had the feeling of an event…  Both OCNE and Maestro Bychkov were not only up to the task but at times it seemed like we were listening to the Czech Philharmonic itself. The Orchestra sounded more Central European than ever with a large palette of colours that enabled Maestro Bychkov to play with different densities…  Bychkov unlocked the music, let it flow and breathed with it… The audience responded with bravos and applause that lasted for about five minutes. The wait had been worth it.

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