Semyon Bychkov has already impressed me with his handling of last year's revival of the Royal Opera House's Don Carlos, so his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra was one of the concerts that jumped out at me when I was doing my last bit of booking back in December. Just as well.
He opened his programme with Dvořák's Carnival Overture. While I'm a big fan of Dvořák, this isn't a piece that's ever especially grabbed me before and hence not one I know all that well. From the opening bars I began to wonder why. Bychkov unleashed the LSO in a phenomenal display of energy and precision. It made for a real party piece, full of orchestral fireworks, and an excellent curtain raiser.
After a brief pause while the piano was raised up through the floor (an always fun to watch quirk of the Barbican - much more interesting than just having it pushed on from the back of the stage), Denis Matsuev joined them for Shostakovich's 2nd piano concerto. He proved every bit the match to Bychkov and the LSO. He maintained clarity through some rapid and intricate passages and found all the necessary weight without recourse to thumping the keyboard. Beneath him, Bychkov balanced his forces well, ensuring the pianist wasn't overwhelmed by the comparatively large orchestra. And yet it wasn't all fireworks - there was plenty of tenderness and beauty in the slow movement.
He was rapturously received, and deservingly so. He gave an encore, and while I'm often not a fan of this, he made it work. It was a miniature called Music Box (I very much like that he introduced it - unfortunately I didn't catch the composer's name, but James Rhodes suggests it was Liadov, and he's a pianist so he would know)*. Not only did it do wonderfully well at replicating a music box in its delicacy, but it pulled you in by the way it began simply and built to fiendish and intricate complexity. Yet it was not without a sense of humour, having the sort of playfulness you might expect of, well, a music box. It also had an appropriately mechanical feel, such that I'd be most interested to hear him play some Bach.
After the interval it was the turn of Brahms' 4th symphony. I seem to have had no end of Brahms 4s in the last year or so (Jordan and the Philharmonia, Metzmacher and the DSOB and Jansons and the Concertgebouw), somehow they don't seem to be quite doing it for me. In part, I think it's because my first concert hall encounter was a blistering reading from Mackerras with the Philharmonia. Partly also I've recently become hooked on a live Furtwangler account with the Berlin Philharmonic, I'm listening as I write this and finding it very hard to concentrate, and nobody is ever going to sound quite like that, even if they were trying (and they probably shouldn't). That said, even though it didn't totally sweep me away, Bychkov's reading it was pretty fine. Furtwangler provides a devastating momentum right from the opening chords. Bychkov, in contrast, gradually built intensity as the movement progressed, finding a good deal of the sense of yearning that pervades the best Brahms. This was followed by an excellent, and beautifully played, slow movement. The third movement was less successful. Often its energy is such that it generates a frisson of applause (and while that happened at some points in the concert it didn't here**), however it seemed distinctly underwhelming. He had an interesting take on the finale: there was plenty of energy, and yet at one or two points he held his pauses rather too long, allowing the tension to slip away. I'm largely splitting hairs, though, it wasn't by any measure a bad performance. Actually, I wonder if part of the problem was that this wasn't the ideal choice to follow the fireworks of the first half.
The LSO were on top form throughout, nicely bringing out the richness of the score. Indeed, their playing for the whole evening was excellent. I'm fast coming round to the balcony as a good place to sit in the Barbican.
The evening was capped by meeting in the flesh some very nice people I've heretofore only known on twitter (but this last can be of only tangential interest to you unless you're @_jojohnson_, @ViolaMaths or @agnieszkasshoes).
*Before I've finished typing up the review, a message comes from the LSO confirming that it is indeed Liadov.
** This is the second concert I've been to in the last couple of weeks where there's been a good deal of mid-movement applause - perhaps people have been reading Alex Ross. I have to say that it doesn't much bother me. Indeed, for the comments it draws from some people, I rather enjoy it. This was especially true at the Edinburgh leg of the Runnicles/Brewer/BBCSSO concerts, where someone was complaining about applause between the Strauss songs. Since they were a disconnected set of assorted opus numbers, it seemed highly odd to get fussed about it.