Don Juan, Op.20
Francesca da Rimini – Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op.32
Academy Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 15 January, 2016
Venue: Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London
Having just conducted a run of Eugene Onegin at Royal Opera and led a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert, Semyon Bychkov returned to the Royal Academy of Music. To open this lunchtime event, Bychkov was awarded Honorary Membership of the RAM (which was founded in 1822) – he already holds its Klemperer Chair of Conducting – and follows such luminaries as Berlioz, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Weber, Harrison Birtwistle, Pierre Boulez, Colin Davis and Simon Rattle, and Elton John and Annie Lennox. The ceremony was on the tedious side and the Citation flattering to a fault but at least Bychkov’s response was of humility and delved into the divine qualities that music possesses.
The concert was similarly mixed. Don Juan opened cautiously, and the timpani salvo was muffled, to herald a one-pulse-fits-all interpretation that was sluggish and sounded tentative throughout. One appreciated Bychkov’s discriminating dynamics, Lavinia Redman’s eloquent oboe solo, some blossoming strings and suitably hollow sounds at the very end, but overall this was earthbound.
Last May at this address Bychkov conducted a stunning account of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. His conducting of Francesca da Rimini didn’t quite emulate that, but it was much superior to the Strauss. Here were greater animation, purpose and tension, woodwinds were baleful, and storm-tossed theatricality abounded – infused by scrupulous musicianship: many a time did Bychkov signal a restraining gesture on anything being overloud, to advantage. The central section, Francesca recalling her love for Paolo, was introduced by the seductive clarinet of Kenichi Kawabata (really quite bewitching) and rose to an impassioned climax, and when the swirling music returns it did so in headlong style precisely crashing to the tumultuous coda – the Jaws of Hell swallowing Francesca and Paolo whole.