LSO/Bychkov Denis Matsuev

Carnival Overture, Op.92
Piano Concerto No.2 in F, Op.102
Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op.98

Denis Matsuev (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 28 March, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This constituted a ‘double debut’, marking as it did the first appearances of both Denis Matsuev and Semyon Bychkov with the LSO and was most auspicious as such and an outstanding concert from first note to last.

Carnival got the evening off to a fizzing start. Often treated as a hell-for-leather curtain-raiser, the overture here emerged as something rather more substantial. Subtlety, precision and restraint were in evidence and there was a welcome inwardness to the quieter sections, with a notably affecting cor anglais contribution from ChristinePendrill and a similarly impressive clarinet solo from Chi-Yu Mo. This was Carnival with a beating heart as well as high jinks.

Denis MatsuevThe Shostakovich took a little time to settle, the work’s initial quick-march tempo revealing some discrepancybetween soloist and conductor as Matsuev hared away like a greyhound out of the box, the LSO taking a few momentsto catch up. The brittle textures of both outer movements suited Matsuev’s clangourous tone and their incessant freneticactivity – almost the aural equivalent of a military assault course – certainly found him performing feats of prestidigitation. It was the central Andante where the piano is treated almost as an obbligato instrument which will linger longest in the mind. Here Bychkov and the LSO’s strings found an exceptional finesse and repose which for a moment almost had one believing that this was music on a par with the greatest piano concertos – it is not, but one was reminded of Noël Coward’s quip about the potency of cheap perfume. After the helter-skelter finale, Matsuev gave us Liadov’s Musical Box as an agreeably quirky encore.

Semyon Bychkov. Photograph: Sheila RockThe Brahms was outstanding. Bychkov took an expansive view of the work, dynamics frequently restrained, slow-burn maybe but unfailingly shaping the music into coherent larger paragraphs, unafraid to allow tensions to expand and contract but never losing the line and with a fine sense of the music’s teeming inner life, the work’s every texture fully savoured. Great orchestra though it is, theLSO has frequently been at its best in 20th-century music (or in Berlioz), but seldom – Haitink apart – in core 19th-centuryGerman repertoire. On this occasion however there could be little doubt that we were listening to one of the world’s major orchestras in a remarkably comprehensive exploration of what is arguably Brahms’s most fully achieved and most tragicsymphony.

In all four movements it was notable that the strings had a sheen and depth (the cello theme with violin descant in the slow movement had a poise and gentle beauty which it rarely receives), there was a quality of patience as the screw tightened gradually but inexorably as the first movement moved towards its coda and the finale’s concluding Passacaglia built to the trombones’ climactic return, and there were some outstanding solo contributions. Above all it was a joy to hear the members of an orchestra listening to itself with such care and achieving results which went straight to the heart of the matter.

Could it be that with Bychkov the LSO has found a conductor capable of doing full justice to 19th-century German repertoire? It certainly seems like it.

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