BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bychkov [Schubert & Rachmaninov … Johan Reuter sings Brahms/Glanert]

Symphony No.2 in B flat
Four Preludes and Serious Songs
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Johan Reuter (bass-baritone)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 March, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Semyon Bychkov. Photograph: Sheila RockThe Friday after the Saturday before … William Walton’s First Symphony might have misfired on that occasion but Semyon Bychkov bounced back to deliver a wonderfully compelling account of Rachmaninov’s swansong, first heard in the early days of 1941 from Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Bychkov judged ideally the tempo for the Non allegro first movement (it was indeed ‘not fast’) so as to integrate the rugged quick music and the nostalgic slower-expressed feelings, the latter adorned by Martin Robertson’s plangent saxophone solo. The hallmark of Bychkov’s conducting was to emphasise the ‘symphonic’ aspect of Rachmaninov’s stimulating and sophisticated score; no need for applied Hollywood gloss, souped-up textures, gushing sentiments or ear-splitting fortissimos. This discriminating performance was illuminated from within, tensions were incremented across large spans, the music presented as dark, deep, Slavic and passionate; the second-movement waltz was a haunted ballroom, the music sinewy and troubled, Bychkov stretching the expression without distorting the line (the BBCSO admirably nimble in the coda); and the finale was a thrilling but not gratuitous ride to the abyss. With immaculate attention to detail and dynamics this was a performance to savour, one that suggests that the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Semyon Bychkov are forging a notable partnership.

This was equally discernable during Detlev Glanert’s orchestration and extension of Brahms’s “Four Serious Songs” (his penultimate opus, 121), which Bychkov conducted as a labour of love, understandably, in this its third London performance. The UK premiere was at BBC Proms in 2006 (conducted by Marc Albrecht) and there was an outing at the 2008 City of London Festival (under Mark Elder). Common to all of these accounts is Johan Reuter, who is a simply magnificent purveyor of the music that Brahms wrote to set his biblical selections. Reuter’s is singing of a depth and reach to match the music, the songs themselves sympathetically scored by Glanert (Brahms’s accompaniment is for piano), his Preludes (and a Postlude) both complementary and expanding, embracing allusions (however unintentional) to Mahler’s (unfinished) Tenth Symphony and to Bergian feverishness. “Vier Präludien und ernste Gesänge” is a marvellous coming-together of two distinguished composers, here in an outstanding performance, if one slightly tarnished at the close by some inconsiderate bugger ignoring the conductor and applauding too early into what had been potent silence.

Schubert’s first six symphonies (those not called ‘Unfinished’ or ‘Great’) tend to be given short shrift. Yet they are delightful and inventive pieces. Bychkov led a bracing and unforced performance of the Second, rhythmically alert and with bountiful turns of phrase. One can support him for not observing the outer movements’ exposition repeats (they do go on a bit), but might quibble the tempo-relationship between the scherzo-like Minuet and the Trio (however insouciant the latter was). The finale could have enjoyed an even-more relaxed tempo so as to find greater playfulness. But Bychkov knows a country-dance when he sees one and also when some muscle is needed (thus the slow movement’s contrasts were underlined) and he can do incisive as well as charming, the BBC Symphony Orchestra responding to Bychkov’s bidding with admiration and conviction.

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