Given the abundance of Mahler performances over the last couple of years — indeed at times it seemed virtually impossible to find a concert that didn’t feature one of his symphonies — the promise of a truly spellbinding performance has to be the main reason for attending yet another performance of his works. Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor is a massive undertaking, yet in recent seasons I’ve witnessed Rattle, Jurowski, Runnicles and Salonen tackle it with varying degrees of success, and would probably have given the chance to hear it again a wide berth if it hadn’t been for the fact that the LSO had engaged Semyon Bychkov to conduct it. Why? Because I still have fond, and troubled, memories of his astonishing performance of the composer’s Sixth Symphony at the Proms with the BBCSO last year.
He did not disappoint. True, his interpretation was probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but compared to the LPO’s tepid account of The 9th a few days’ earlier, this performance positively crackled from beginning to end with the kind of urgency and sense of purpose that only a conductor of Bychkov’s standing can bring to the work. The first movement at over 35 minutes bristles with gauche marching bands, over the top spatial effects and although the opening theme on the horns only just managed to stay on the right side of vulgar, the percussion and timpani crashes that followed it certainly set the tone for an interpretation that was going to challenge the listener. Was it all too loud? Possibly, but to my ears it never seemed exaggerated.
Bychkov certainly brought out all the contrasts of the second movement and throughout was awarded with astonishingly accomplished playing from all sections of the orchestra, the woodwind being especially responsive to his unerring direction. Christopher Deacon’s haunting playing of the off-stage Flugelhorn in the third movement had plenty of heart-stopping moments, and whilst I’ve never warmed to Christianne Stotijn’s voice, she produced appropriately ethereal sounds in the setting of Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, even if she tended towards melodrama. There were excellent contributions from the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and the Ladies of the LSO Chorus, and they gave way to a sublime final movement. Although Bychkov took a very measured tempo here, the results paid off — gloriously warm string tone leading to a suitably cataclysmic finale. The audience, apart from an unnecessary smattering of applause when Ms Stotijn appeared on the platform, behaved superbly, no doubt mesmerised by such an audacious, yet utterly overwhelming performance.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk