Bychkov leads Philharmonic in intense and spellbinding Shostakovich

Fri May 18, 2018 at 2:37 pm
Semyon Bychkov conducted the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's Symphony No. 6 Thursday night. File photo: Chris Christodoulou

Semyon Bychkov conducted the New York Philharmonic in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 Thursday night. File photo: Chris Christodoulou

Semyon Bychkov has been among the most reliable guest conductors in the New York Philharmonic rotation of recent years. When he visits, one can expect tight playing and powerful interpretations of difficult repertoire.

The Philharmonic’s concert Thursday night at David Geffen Hall was no exception, anchored by Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5—a thrilling chance to hear one of the true symphonic masterworks of the twentieth century.

The evening had a sleepy start with Brahms’s Tragic Overture. This might not be the most profound piece in the concert repertoire, but it felt unusually slight under Bychkov’s hand, and not terribly precise, either—the ensemble was slightly looser than it ought to have been, and the balance was never quite clear. More to the point, there was no dramatic tension, as the Philharmonic played with little energy and half-hearted dynamics.

The concerto on Thursday was Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1; this is not the weightiest item in its genre, either, but it received a convincing performance on Thursday. Making his debut with the Phil was Bertrand Chamayou, a French pianist not well known in the United States but with a reasonably active career in Europe. He showed an ideal hot-blooded passion in the stormy chords and arpeggios of the first movement, and though his passagework was not quite perfectly crisp, he shaped it well into the torrid flow of the music.

Bertrand Chamayou. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Bertrand Chamayou. Photo: Marco Borggreve

The Andante was simply stunning—Chamayou’s touch brought glowing tone out of the piano, filled out beautifully by the warm sighing of the cellos. His tasteful rubato played delicately with time, so that he found moments of loveliness to highlight without interrupting the progress of the reverie. After a slow movement of such arresting tenderness, the lighthearted scamper of the closing Presto seemed a non-sequitur, but Chamayou gave it a glittering rendition.

For an encore, he offered the Liszt transcription of Mendelssohn’s lied “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges” (“On Wings of Song”). Simple and affecting, this short reflection is almost like a study in balance, which Chamayou handled impeccably.

After what had been a light program to that point, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was a major departure, and proved worth the wait. The Fifth was famously Shostakovich’s public penance after having been denounced by Stalin’s censors for his earlier music, and rivers of ink have been spilled over the inner psychology of the piece.

Anyone who doubts the composer’s bitterness found its way into the work ought to hear a performance like this one: Bychkov led a profound reading, finding all of its dramatic focus and its powerful, even overwhelming emotions.

From beginning in frigid darkness, it was a thrill to hear the first movement unfold. As he progressed through the fugato sections, Bychkov brought out the character of each discrete line as they wove together. The energy of the playing at times had a terrifying intensity.

The cellos began the Scherzo with fierce bite, and Bychkov’s reading showed a wicked sense of humor as the movement wore on, slick and flashy in its tart waltzes. Frank Huang was brilliant in his concertmaster solos, playing with Kreislerian panache.

The intense grief of the music came through in a spellbinding rendition of the Largo. The haunting clarinet solo drove straight to the deep feeling of emptiness that lies at the heart of this symphony—one that persisted even as the orchestra’s playing grew more desperate and agitated.

The finale has been perhaps the most fiercely debated of the symphony’s movements: where some detect inner turmoil and thinly veiled resentment, others hear the obedient jubilations of a Party hack. There was little doubt in Bychkov’s reading—this was an aggressive performance, even frightening in its manic celebration, played with gripping force and taut energy as it assaulted the listener with bombast.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at David Geffen Hall.

One Response to “Bychkov leads Philharmonic in intense and spellbinding Shostakovich”

  1. Posted May 19, 2018 at 9:15 am by ken rosenblum

    Bychkov nailed the Fifth like I have never heard it ever played. Beyond beyond. Thank you.

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