Belief & Beyond Belief – Semyon Bychkov conducts Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at Royal Festival Hall with Royal Academy of Music forces

Symphony No.2 in C-minor (Resurrection)

Carrie-Ann Williams (soprano) & Marvic Monreal (mezzo-soprano)

Academy Symphony Chorus

Academy Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 22 June, 2017
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Semyon BychkovPhotograph: Musacchio IannielloAs if hell-bent to break the current hot spell, Semyon Bychkov’s sweeping downbeat unleashed a crackling string tremolando; cellos and double basses giving a fair representation of thunder in the semiquaver ascents that starts Mahler’s epic ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. This was a performance that gripped from that very opening, reminding of why I was so bowled over by the work when I first heard it live (Klaus Tennstedt, London Philharmonic, same venue, 12 May 1981).

Bychkov’s willing cohorts were the Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and loosely attached to the Southbank Centre’s year-long Belief & Beyond Belief. Notable from its absence in the LPO’s repertoire that forms the main-stay of the festival, Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony epitomises the questions inherent in the festival’s title, even if the printed programme gave scant mention of it or raise any of the issues, which was perhaps a collaborative opportunity missed. The Royal Festival Hall was the host as the RAM’s Duke’s Hall is way too small for the forces required (let alone the increase in audience numbers), especially amidst the multi-million-pound development to create a new theatre and recital hall.

Bychkov had thought everything out carefully, with impeccable stage management not only of the offstage brass and percussion in the finale, but also in bringing on soloists and choir following the first movement, Mahler’s instruction of a five-minute break respected. The RAM Chorus was segregated unusually – tenors behind sopranos on Bychkov’s left; basses behind mezzos on his right – and they sat, score-less, for most of their music.

Both vocal soloists had, last week, been in alternate casts of the RAM’s production of Brecht & Weill’s Threepenny Opera. You could hardly imagine a greater difference between the two works – one viewing the world as through a glass half-empty, the other finding hope in a glass half-full. From the poster-paint vibrancy of the Threepenny costumes, Carrie-Ann Williams (in black) and Marvic Monreal (light mauve) were in long dresses. Monreal sonorously delivered ‘Urlicht’ in a velvety voice buoyed by Bychkov’s flowing tempo and was joined by Williams – like the Chorus for much of Klopstock’s ode – seated even when her line crystallises out of the choral sound. The fortissimo, when they all stood for the final peroration, organ added, was appositely spine-tingling.

Such thundering climaxes – particularly the percussion crescendos in the Finale – were undeniably exciting; visceral to the point of being tangible as well as audible (the tutti triplet descent and shattering double quavers after figure 20 in the first movement elicited a smattering of involuntary clapping). But even more impressive was the quieter playing as well as the roll-call of exquisite solos. Bychkov – who had swept on to the stage with an almost Byronic air – relinquished the baton to mould the delightful second movement with his hands. Yet, even after the exigencies of the Finale, he seemed remarkably unruffled.

This performance laid down a benchmark to the London Symphony Orchestra which has programmed the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony with Bychkov on February 4. Meanwhile he is back with the Royal Academy of Music for Mahler 9 on October 13.

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