BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bychkov [Rachmaninov’s The Bells & William Walton’s First Symphony]

The Bells – Choral Symphony, Op.35
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor

Viktoria Yastrebova (soprano), Frank Lopardo (tenor) & David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 March, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

An attractive coupling of two under-played (maybe underestimated) masterpieces, neither of which quite made the biggest impression here, the Walton especially.

Semyon Bychkov. Photograph: Sheila RockRachmaninov’s setting of lines by Edgar Allan Poe as freely translated into Russian by Konstantin Balmont exploits different types of bells for a birth-to-death journey. This performance started promisingly, ‘Silver Sleigh Bells’ buoyant and energised, Frank Lopardo’s invitation to “Hear…” being captivatingly sotto voce and confiding. There was much that was vividly characterised, a mix of breezy impressionism and outdoor vigour, a paean of praise enhanced by a lusty BBC Symphony Chorus (superb throughout); and the rapture of the second movement (‘Mellow Wedding Bells’), together with the harmonic curdle that seems to warn against marriage (!), was well conveyed, Viktoria Yastrebova adding a Slavic edge but also chaste expressions. The ‘Loud Alarum Bells’ of the third movement were a little contained and needed more swagger to convey the full force and menace of the music. The ‘Mournful Iron Bells’ that is the finale was bleak and resigned, consoling too (graced by Alison Teale’s contribution on cor anglais), and welcomed David Wilson-Johnson as a typically reliable and intuitive replacement (for Vladimir Vaneev). The glowing final bars seemed to take Semyon Bychkov unawares (it was some while before he seemed ready to acknowledge applause); maybe the loss of his brother, the conductor Yakov Kreizberg who died on 15 March at the age of 51, got to him at that moment; if so, it was a very understandable human and poignant reaction.

It’s always good to hear William Walton’s singular First Symphony, a remarkably personal mix of power, passion, anger and seductive beauty. But it needs a conductor absolutely inside the score, someone who owns it and who can put it across with total and unashamed conviction. Semyon Bychkov was admirably respectful of it, giving the letter of the music (inner parts lucid) but rarely its spirit; too often it seemed as if he was trying the piece out, save he had conducted it in San Francisco last October. Nevertheless, Walton 1 seems not quite to suit him, despite compelling moments, usually slower and lyrical ones, which meant that the melancholic slow movement was the highlight (heart-rending, fluidly Expressionist, and with a charismatic flute solo from Daniel Pailthorpe). Otherwise the performance, which began tentatively, lacked for thrust and identification, not least the ‘con malizia’ scherzo that was without spite (expletives deleted), iinterpretively cautious, and also under the prescribed tempo (this is a Presto marking that really needs observing, although it’s not just speed but temperament), and a fugue (finale) that was strangely coy, playful even, rather than incisive and propulsive.

This is music that should envelop and overwhelm the listener, the symphony being paraded as the great work that it is. That it did not on this occasion, despite lucid textures and decent playing (and a touching ‘last post’ trumpet solo towards the end of the finale from Bo Fuglsang), may simply be down to a conductor not immersed enough in Walton’s world of emotional turmoil to fully capture and convey it.

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