BBCSO conducted by Semyon Bychkov perform Beethoven & Mendelssohn, and are joined by Kirill Gerstein in Schumann’s Piano Concerto

Overture ‘Coriolan’, Op.62

Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54

Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 (Scottish)

Kirill Gerstein (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 3 September, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The BBCSO and Semyon Bychkov clearly enjoy each other’s company. He ‘sits’ on the orchestra’s Günter Wand Conducting Chair (created for him), and he has been a Proms regular over many seasons. This programme was along the lines of ‘Friday night is music night’, with three evergreen favourites in a well-worn format, and the Royal Albert Hall was as full as I have seen it this summer. In this brave new concert-going world, the Prommers’ behaviour is a bit muted, but since there are no post-concert musicians’ charity collections this year, there is no pre-concert Prommers banter (which anyway lost its spark years ago). There was a modest ‘heave-ho’ at the raising of the piano lid, but no clapping for the tuning A, which I suppose would have meant sanitizing the keyboard. There was, though, inter-movement applause in the Schumann.

Bychkov transcended this comfort-zone familiarity with his genius for drawing out music’s powers of extra-musical suggestion, which generously enhanced the heroics and tragedy at work in Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. From the start, he imposed an urgent tempo that only intensified the more lyrical episodes’ pathos, and the BBCSO players engaged marvelously with Beethoven’s searing portrait of the Roman general torn between love, duty and honour.

For a pianist who has embraced jazz, contemporary music and the heavy-lifting end of the repertoire, the Schumann Piano Concerto might not seem Kirill Gerstein’s natural habitat, although recently he has been folding Mozart into his repertoire. He and Bychkov let Schumann’s sense of fantasy flow in the first movement with an ease that nevertheless scrupulously observed the music’s balance between soloist and orchestra, and Gerstein’s performance was as memorable for moments like the spontaneous busking with clarinet and oboe solos (Richard Hosford and Alison Teale in fine romantic voice) as for the eruption of grandeur in the cadenza, but it was Bychkov who kept faith with this concerto’s scale and character. A beautifully judged transition from the Intermezzo led to a sparkling finale that released the Chopin in Gerstein in playing of mercurial delicacy and detail. There was an encore, Busoni’s transcription of J. S. Bach’s chorale prelude ‘Nun freut’ euch lieben Christen g’mein’ BWV 734, a spirited whirl of moto perpetuo that suits Gerstein well.

The key of A minor is Mendelssohn’s secret ingredient. It gives his music a nervy edge and a sense of distance. In the case of the ‘Scottish’ Symphony it adds the musical equivalent of the landscape’s elemental grey-green remoteness, especially in Bychkov and the BBCSO’s handling of light and shade, a wonderful and early evocation of impressionism leaking out of the music’s romanticism. The first-movement repeat gave the Symphony even more power and weight, and Bychkov enabled the strange sensation that the more the music changed face harmonically and orchestrally the more it stayed the same. One of Mendelssohn’s landscape sketches from his 1829 Scottish tour was reproduced in the printed programme, nearly 200 years old but it could have been done yesterday. The BBCSO players worked wonders with the conventional classical orchestra, and there were many moments when wind-swept, granitic Mendelssohn anticipated Bruckner.

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