Mahlers Symphony No. 6 in A minor is a work of such epic proportions and profound emotion that its often performed on its own these days, yet at this superlative concert given by an attentive, impassioned and thoroughly drilled BBC Symphony Orchestra under the masterful baton of Semyon Bychkov it was paired with Richard Strauss Burlesque. An early work and redolent of Brahms, it contains a fiendishly difficult piano part which was dispatched with aplomb by Kirill Gerstein who made light of the works complexities. The rest failed to make much of an impression on this particular listener, but the BBCSO certainly gave a committed performance.
Mahlers 6th Symphony is one of the composers towering achievements. Pessimistic in its overall view, it nevertheless contains much light and shade alongside the occasional glimmer of hope,and at nearly 90 minutes long not only makes huge demands of the players but needs a conductor who can really get to the heart of the work. The commitment and dedication of the members of the BBCSO, all 126 them, was evident in every bar as an orchestra they have improved immeasurably over the last few years, no doubt in part to having Jiř Bělohlávek as their galvanizing music director. I kept thinking back to a very lackadaisical performance of Mahlers 2nd Symphony at the Proms, where there were fluffs a-plenty, so their scrupulous attention to detail here, homogeneity in sound and sense of everyone playing -as-one and sense of atmosphere that they created was palpable.
The architect of this success was the conductor Semyon Bychkov. He launched the first movement at a cracking pace its marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo and initially I missed the portentous tread that other conductors instil in the opening bars, but as the movement progressed Bychkovs pace seemed wholly appropriate. Climaxes were fierce, and the spatial effects (cowbells seemingly set high up on the right hand side of the hall) deftly handled. There were plenty of properly terrifying moments where Bychkov certainly allowed the orchestra its head.
He played the Scherzo as the second movement (some conductors choose to place the Andante here) and for me this always seems the natural order of this symphony, allowing a respite before the onslaught of the final movement. Bychkov took the Scherzo at quite a lick, its pounding march rhythms taking on even more sinister overtones than they had in the first movement, yet allowed the moments of balm, especially in the strings, their due levity.
There was some beautiful horn playing in the reflective third movement from Martin Owen, and whilst Mahler may take us back to some of the more pastoral musings of the first movement, Bychkov never let us forget the undercurrent of foreboding that permeates the entire symphony. The fourth movement was faultlessly played and conducted; a proper and fitting climax to everything that had gone before. The two hammer blows of fate set the seal on a shattering conclusion to an outstanding performance the massive orchestral tutti before the final notes, which seemed to evaporate into the ether, was truly shattering. The 20 seconds of silence at the close said it all, and it has to be said that the behaviour of the audience was exemplary no applause between movements and very little coughing gave notice that a packed hall was totally absorbed in the proceedings. Both conductor and orchestra received huge ovations at the end. A stunning evening.