BBC Proms reviews

Prom 46: BBCSO/Bychkov @ Royal Albert Hall, London

19 August 2009

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

There can be few conductors who are as synonymous with Shostakovich’s music as Semyon Bychkov, and this deep understanding of the composer’s idiom resulted in an overwhelming performance of his Symphony No. 11, ‘The year 1905’.

Given the demands it places on both orchestra and audience, it’s not surprising that Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, ‘The year 1905’ crops up less frequently on concert programmes than the remainder of his symphonic output. Written in 1957 for the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution, the symphony’s title, movement headings and musical content invoked a suitably revolutionary theme: the failed Russian uprising of 1905, which had been brutally put down by Tsar Nicholas II. Under the unwavering baton of Bychkov, the symphony was played in one giant arc, with no pauses between movements, which meant that the mind was concentrated 100% on the music and it was a relief to be spared the irritating coughing between movements and – worse – ignorant misplaced applause.

From the icy chill of the strings that evoke the vast wintry expanses of the Palace Square, interspersed with clarion trumpet volleys, the first movement evolved at a measured pace which sorely tested the string players, yet the members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra rose to the challenge, indeed I can’t remember hearing them play so well. They had obviously been well-drilled by Bychkov and the results were incandescent. As the bells rang out in the final movement, the whole symphony came to a shattering conclusion which left the audience drained, yet elated.

The first half of this memorable concert began with the UK premiere of Detlev Glanert’s Shoreless River. A BBC commission, this 20-minute work has connections to Glanert’s current opera in progress, The Wooden Ship, and it made a strong impression – mostly because of the canny way Glanert creates atmosphere along with his unerring ear for vivid orchestral sounds. After that Denis Matsuev was the virtuosic soloist in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini whose astonishingly assured playing combined with Bychkov’s expressive conducting allowed the work to come across freshly-minted.

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