Mahlerians are still proudly bearing the scars of Semyon Bychkov’s excoriating account of Mahler’s Sixth at the BBC Proms last year, and expectations were riding high to hear how he would deliver the Third’s great chain of being. In a way, all you have to be in order to get the most out of the Sixth (or the Seventh, Ninth and Tenth) is a grown-up, albeit one with a robust and sophisticated sense of self.
With the ‘Wunderhorn’ symphonies, and especially the Third, there’s a suspension of disbelief to be yielded to, and the process of persuasion (rather than coercion) is fraught with issues of taste and style. Adult pianists tie themselves up in knots over Mozart’s Sonata facile, because it’s not easy to find a point of re-entry into its simplicity. Mahler’s explosion of chaos into a resolution of love is a million times more unashamedly, almost religiously grandiloquent, but you still need to want to put your trust in the conductor and his squadrons of musicians. Bychkov and the LSO succeeded spectacularly.
Mahler may have withdrawn his titles for each of the six movements, but Bychkov made it clear that the Third revolves around the presence and many eruptions of a barely controllable force, which both creates and destroys. The way the magnificent LSO horns barged their way into the summery opening, only for the music to slump into wintry, lurking discontent set the tone for tremulous life-forms such as sentimental violin solos and brash military marches to get going in confidence and deceptive geniality, only to be violently suppressed. The two crises were as shattering as I’ve heard them, and the parade of vividly contrasting sections danced around the central mystery in a way that made complete sense of this huge movement. The LSO playing was marvellous – marooned, desolate trumpet calls, an inexorably baleful solo trombone, a sumptuously glossy string sound with a superb violin solo from Roman Simovic.
The power of the first movement cast a long shadow over the tender charms of the second, with a finely controlled Viennese lilt helping Mahler’s ‘flowers of the meadow’ put down roots. As the third movement grew in freedom, the cohesiveness of Bychkov’s long overview became more and more impressive, enabling the otherworldly flugelhorn (a heart-stopping solo from Christopher Deacon) through its nostalgic innocence to admit to the possibility of another layer of being, to be continued in the two vocal movements. The eruption at the end of this third movement didn’t just sound dangerous and threatening; it also acted as the turning point of the whole symphony, singling it out as the element to move away from.
This feeling of release and detachment became even clearer with Christianne Stotijn’s Erda-like ‘O Mensch!’, skilfully poised between high drama and profound stillness, sung with a defining presence of clarity and distance, and making the following 'Es sungen drei Engel' sound more than usually sunlit.
Bychkov’s natural unfolding of the symphony was particularly satisfying, all down, it would seem, to his elegant, precise baton and eloquent left hand, a completely non-mysterious-looking technique releasing any amount of marvel and mystery. Just as enthralling was the degree of orchestral detail and style, from sensationally fine woodwind, with especially ‘lost’ oboe calls heightening the secrecy of Stotijn’s song, to the whole orchestra responding to Mahler’s grob
(coarse) direction with a will. Even from the LSO, this was great playing, idiomatic, generous and right inside the notes. But one really treasured moment was the long-held note at the end of the ‘Drei Engel’ movement that delivered a miraculously solid, gentle pianissimo string sound for the opening of the finale. The sense of certainty and resolution that gathered strength and identity through the three cataclysmic outbursts to the radiant closing bars must have been as lovely and all-embracing as Mahler hoped for in a movement originally titled ‘What love tells me’.