Conductor Semyon Bychkov returned to lead the Berliner Philharmoniker in a tasty program transmitted through the Digital Concert Hall. This is the fourth event that Bychkov has conducted that will enter the permanent archives of the orchestra, making Bychkov and Bernard Haitink the most frequently represented guest conductors in the collection of over 100 concerts.
Bychkov gets a remarkable sound from the orchestra. What is it about the way that Bychkov conducts that makes this sound? Perhaps the combination of practical gestures and transparent sincerity in his visual contact with the orchestra. Whatever it is, he won the day.
The program opened with "Rendering" by Luciano Berio. The work is a meditation on the fragments of a tenth symphony that Schubert left behind at his death. Schubert's ghost couldn't have orchestrated these fragments any better than Berio. And Berio left the fragments as they were without trying to finish them.
During the gaps Berio composed and inserted whimsical music that sounds the whispered celestial distances from our world to Schubert's. It was these passages that made the deepest impression in this performance. Led by Bychkov, the Berliner Philharmoniker explored the riches within these interludes and focused many shifting and intricate streams of sound.
It is common to hear orchestras phase out during these passages and simply present a single quiet tableau of undifferentiated sound. When that happens the differences between the Schubert style and the interlude style sounds inorganic and false.
Too much has been made of any similarity between the opening tune of the second movement in "Rendering" and the distorted music of the third movement of Mahler I. There is more difference than similarity. And oboist Albrecht Mayer played the lyrical tune from Berio/Schubert with a rich and full sounding lyricism that made this distinction clear.
The contrast between the broken fragility of the second movement and the playful joy of the third movement was something that Bychkov was great at communicating. The shift of attitudes was powerful.
Mayer returned to the stage by himself after intermission to perform Berio's Sequenza VII for solo oboe. This performance used a live (instead of recorded) drone on the pitch [B] which was played from the wings above the stage. Normally one only hears this work on chamber concerts and it was refreshing to hear it performed by an orchestral specialist in a huge space. Mayer successfully moved between the fixed and improvisatory sections that are woven into the music fabric of this work and produced richly colored multiphonics. Mayer is so musical he makes you wonder why everyone doesn't choose to play the oboe.
The performance concluded with William Walton's Symphony No. 1. During the interlude Sarah Willis talked with Bychkov about the differences between playing this work with an English orchestra and a German orchestra, many members of which had never played the work. Bychkov said that there were different kinds of challenges with all orchestras.
What he meant by that became more obvious when he started conducting the work. Bychkov has a very distinct sonic conception of this symphony--it does not sound like an unknown symphony by Sibelius in his hands. Bychkov seemed to inspire the musicians to rely on the lyrical qualities in the work, and to allow them to make the same rich but clear textures that won the day in Berio/Schubert. Surprisingly the rhythmic vitality of the work did not need to be compromised, but we often made progress through great spans of music in ways that almost seemed unfamiliar and new. Bychkov certainly knows where all the hallways lead in the haunted mansion that is the Walton first symphony.
I can see why the Berliner Philharmoniker loves Bychkov. Bring him back soon!