Saturday, 24 July 2010

Proms 2010 - Semyon Bychkov and the WDR Symphony Orchestra, Köln, undertake a little mountaineering

Note - this is a review of the concert broadcast on Radio 3.

Semyon Bychkov has impressed me when I've heard him in the flesh, such as with a dazzling reading of Dvorak's Carnival Overture with the London Symphony Orchestra.  On the evidence of Tuesday's broadcast, this flair is not lost by being on the other end of a live relay.

In some respects, the prelude to act one of Wagner's Lohengrin was something of a low octane start.  Yet the quiet opening presented him with a nice showcase for the WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne's fine players.  Slow and gentle with some fine and shimmering textures on display, it served notice that this was going to be a rather special evening.  Mixed in with the quiet and poetic beauty was a fine and weighty central climax all of which rather made you wish the rest of the opera was to follow.

They were then joined by Viviane Hagner for Mendelssohn's violin concerto and together they raised the energy by several notches.  It was a lively reading and there was an excellent rapport between soloist, conductor and orchestra.  Hagner played very well, with plenty of character and displaying some wonderful textures.  Having said that, the outer and more vibrant movements were significantly more successful, full of sparkle and detail, than the central andante which wasn't quite so compelling.  What impressed most was how very fresh they made this familiar piece feel.

The first half closed with a new piece - the UK premiere of Gunter Schuller's Where the Words End. Visceral and elemental to begin with, there was a lot going on orchestrally, yet this was not the kitchen sink school of orchestration with things thrown in for the sake of it.  It was a powerful and muscular piece with Bychkov seeming in perfect control, his forces well drilled.  The composition provided a nice showcase for some throaty brass action and some nicely dramatic percussion effects.  A calmer and more meditative section followed before the piece intensified again, building towards a fairly dramatic ending, though somewhat less so than the opening.  And yet, engaging though it might have been, it did not leave any especially lasting impression.

The highlight, though, came with the ascent that filled the second half: Richard Strauss's Ein Alpensinfonie.  Bychkov's was perhaps not the most vivid representation of the alps that I've heard, but at times they did conjure up some stunning vistas, especially in the big climaxes.  Some of the rumbling low frequencies sounded absolutely glorious - goodness only knows how much better they must have felt, and I do mean felt, in the hall.  The offstage brass had a nicely etherial balance, though such effects never quite carry though on a broadcast as magically as they can in the hall.  Indeed, what marked the performance was both the quality and intensity of the playing that Bychkov drew from the orchestra.  So too the sense of structure - this felt like one constant journey, not a series of episodes.  The quiet ending carried a weight of emotion.  Apparently this was Bychkov's final appearance as music director of the orchestra - the performance seemed a more than fitting valediction.  Suffice to say I've already ordered their recording of the piece and may well pick up their Lohengrin too.

The evening's only significant blemish was a technical failure that caused me to lose sound briefly midway through the Alpensinfonie.  When it came back it was at AAC 48 - meaning horribly tinny and unlistenable for those of you not of a technical persuasion.  After five minutes I restarted it and all was well.  Of course, that's what listen again is for, sadly that's at lower quality than the live stream.  Will the BBC please address this.

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