16th January 2020
Unfinished business: fine Schubert and Beethoven from Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic.
Semyon Bychkov is now in his second season as Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. Judging by the atmosphere in the Rudolfinum last night, it hasn’t taken him long to win a place in the hearts of the both the audience and the orchestra: rarely have I seen a concert in which orchestral players looked so devoted to the man on the podium.
The person who epitomised the happiness in this concert was the mohican-haired cellist Jan Keller, who spent the whole evening casting beaming smiles across at his partner and anyone else who might be looking. But spare a thought for our two bassoonists, who were rocking and rolling to Beethoven’s Seventh, clearly relishing the dance feel of the piece. And that was very much Bychkov’s style in this concert – conducting without a score, choreographing his movements in the direction of whatever mood he felt Beethoven was taking us.
Throughout the evening, you couldn’t fault the Czech Phil on the precision of their togetherness or their balance. That’s crucial in the Beethoven, where the colour is provided by creating a whole series of blends of combinations of others. If one instrument in the blend is a bit too loud or too soft or enters at a slightly different time, the effect is lost: here, we had the delightful surprise every time one of these new “virtual instruments” appeared. All this precision was put into the service following Beethoven’s imagination: pure joy from rising scales in the first movement, a certain genteel elegance in the Allegretto, interlaced with moments of horn-fuelled transcendence. The third movement was a village hop, with the bombast added by trumpets and horns in the trio section. Were the strings not quite perfectly defined at the start the fourth? No matter, as the movement morphed into a full gallop to round off this most optimistic of performances.
The broadly benevolent feel of the evening had started with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Schubert may not have had Beethoven’s connections with Bohemia, but the music suits the Czech style down to a T, most particularly the use of woodwind which evokes the hills and forests much as it does in Dvořák. The Czech Phil’s woodwind section were on blistering form, with the second movement clarinet solo the most notable of many beautifully executed solo lines. The dance rhythms brought to mind another composer and place – Tchaikovsky and Russia. This was a marvellous exposition of Schubert’s lyricism – the only thing one might have wished for being more variation between the restatements of each theme.
The first half was closed by Schubert – but not as we know it, in the shape of Luciano Berio’s Rendering, his composition built out of Schubert’s other unfinished symphony, the D936a in D major. Berio takes the unusual approach of interleaving Schubert’s fragments with passages of his own devising which make no attempt at pastiche: the Schubertian orchestra is augmented by a celesta, whose shimmering timbre is often used to mark Berio’s contributions. It’s a mercurial work, with elements as diverse as Lutheran sounding brass chorale or country dance interspersed with romantic melody, but one that entertained richly, particularly as the series of wonderful woodwind interludes continued.
Bychkov and the Czech Phil seem still to be firmly in honeymoon mode. Long may that continue.