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BBC Symphony Orchestra, Bychkov, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Bychkov, Barbican Hall

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Bychkov, Barbican Hall

Russian conductor anchors obsessive Rachmaninov and anxious Walton

Semyon Bychkov: Digging deep in Rachmaninov, less to say about WaltonSheila Rock

What is it about Rachmaninov's ghost-train masterpiece The Bells and death? The BBC Symphony Orchestra last played it under the great Russian conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov, who used it as a valedictory gesture knowing he had only weeks to live. Yesterday Semyon Bychkov measured out the funeral knell of its harrowing finale with surely some thoughts of his brother and fellow conductor Yakov Kreizberg, who died on 15 March at the age of 51.

Not that anyone would have realised it without foreknowledge. As one player commented in the interval, it was business as usual - which, for Bychkov, means a phenomenal control and the clearest of stick techniques. The conductor did look shell-shocked in the silence following the final bars, where Rachmaninov glides from lugubrious, obsessive minor to a transcendental, Mahlerian major key and gives the beautiful lie - ever so quietly, here, as lined by Daniel Pailthorpe's ineffable flute solo - to the last line of Konstantin Balmont's Edgar Allen Poe adaptation, that the quiet of the grave is all there is.

That was surely where this concert should have come to rest. We all liked the idea of a blockbuster programme following up Rachmaninov's "choral symphony" with Walton's First, and if Bychkov could have pulled off the sheer exuberance of the massive finale Walton added after the earlier movements had been performed, it might have worked. But he didn't seem in the mood: it came over merely as a sharply etched rehearsal, at least until the final tattoos. Here, too, another BBCSO memory lurked for some of us behind the performance - the way Edward Gardner, a couple of years ago, had spruced up the symphony's ungainlier moments, hit the terraced climaxes of the first movement in a way that Bychkov, for all his rolling grandeur, didn't quite manage, and aimed more surely with the darts of spirited malice.

So is it a young man's piece, for all its apparent soul searching? I think so. Three parts cinematic high anxiety, one part Thunderbirds meets muscly Hindemith - Barry Gray must have known his Walton when he wrote that unfogettable theme for Gerry Anderson's puppet adventure series - its tension can seem stupendous, but its attempts to be The Big Symphony can veer towards flatulence, its deeper feelings be brought into question, if the energy is fitful. There were fabulous colours as always from this orchestra on its current superb form - the virtuoso first thrusting forward of the trombones, the sonorities from steam-whistle piccolo to the factory-siren low notes of Sam Elliott's rich, rather than raspy, tuba. And the melancholy interlude when the relentless drive of the opening Allegro assai briefly came to a halt promised well for the churning slow movement.

Bychkov could not quite efface memories of the way that Svetlanov had terraced the longest, most orgiastic crescendo in the work, Wagner's Tristan on speed

But that didn't quite deliver, and therein truly lay the problem of the evening's planning: after the palpable profundity of Rachmaninov's self-examination, which you imagine must even have brought tears to the composer's eyes when he first conducted The Bells in 1913, Walton's melancholy Andante seemed like one thick-oiled slow movement too many ("a bit like Khachaturian", my Russian companion of the evening commented, not meaning it entirely negatively).

It did at least confirm the status of the earlier work, one which remained closest to the Russian composer's heart. And there was vocal quality and/or engagement to back it up. After Rachmaninov's most iridescent feat of orchestration - its brightness so short-lived - tenor Frank Lopardo's "slyshish", "listen", came from nowhere to launch us into the jingling sleigh ride proper; a brighter Russian-tenor sound might have cut better through an orchestra which Bychkov never had any intention of keeping down, but the sense of the voices trying to ride that merry-go-round could be fascinating, and the BBC Symphony Chorus did a full-toned job throughout, terrifying in the sledgehammer climaxes of the last two movements. If it wasn't Rachmaninov conducting on quite the level of involvement we'd had from the phenomenal Kazuki Yamada just over a week ago, this was still fine and focused work.

The short but crucially high-lying soprano of a not quite easy wedding-bells rhapsody was rising star Viktoria Yastrebova, involved and subtle even if at one point there seemed to be a slight lack of synch with Bychkov and his players - and the conductor could not quite efface memories of the way that Svetlanov had terraced the longest, most orgiastic crescendo in the work, Wagner's Tristan on speed. But hang on - surely that was David Wilson-Johnson, not advertised Mariinsky bass Vladimir Vaneev, ringing the "mournful iron bells" of Rachmaninov's shattering conclusion?

It was, though neither programme nor event prepared me for the fact. This was not, it seems, an evening for announcements we might reasonably have expected, either of replacement or of a dedication. But no matter: I only wanted the audience to be sure of whom they were hearing, for the now-veteran British baritone still sings in idiomatic Russian with his customary commitment, pulling out all the stops in the hair-raising declamation "for the just and the unjust", and finally taking on board in gesture alone - eyes raised, hand on heart - the transformation of all that gloom which belongs to the orchestra alone: a truly redemptive epilogue, the evening's true moment of grace.

Watch footage of Rachmaninov and his times with Bychkov speaking and rehearsing the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Symphonic Dances

Three parts cinematic high anxiety, one part Thunderbirds meets muscly Hindemith, the tension of Walton's First Symphony can seem stupendous

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Several months down the line, I finally get round to putting David right on the previous BBCSO/BBCSC performance - not with Svetlanov but with the under-rated Saraste in the 2004-2005 season. On a related note, I am informed that the Svetlanov recording is in line for commercial release - but only if royalties etc can be agreed on.

Gosh, yes, I should have remembered that - I was there and talked before it. But mostly, I think, about the Shostakovich 15, which is the performance I remember (clever double-bill: that work starts and ends with bells, too). Have been impressed by all Jukka-Pekka's appearances with the orchestra and look forward eagerly to his Sibelius 6 & 7 later this year.

Good news that the classic performance is due for release, though. With or without the Tchaik 1 in the first half?


Hi David, The Tchaik 1 has already been issued (on ICAC5007), which is what prompted me to ask whether that Bells - legendary in BBCSC circles - was going to follow. The answer being a cautious yes, I've been scanning the monthly releases for the last year but nothing yet... D

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