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Ionarts at Large: Repin's Beethoven and Bychkov's Shostakovich

When the “Heldenleben-orchestra” stops at the Philharmonic Hall in Munich, home of the Munich Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann – Straussians of the first order – it is only natural to bring repertoire that isn’t also one of the home team’s hallmarks.

Of course Semyon Bychkov and his West German Radio Symphony Orchestra Cologne (WDR SO) are capable of much more than just Richard Strauss’ famous tone poem the frequent performance of which has resulted in the above nickname.

On record he has recently displayed his mastery of Mahler, Rachmaninov, Brahms, Strauss operas (Elektra, Daphne) on the Avie and Hänssler Profil labels and some may remember when he was one of Philips’ star-conductors in the early 90’s.

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L.v.Beethoven, Violin Cto., Kreutzer Sonata,
V.Repin / R.Muti / WPh

For Avie Bychkov has also recorded five of the big Shostakovich symphonies – Nos. 4, 10, 11, 8, and 7 and it was Shostakovich’s powerful, probably underrated Fourth Symphony that they brought to Munich. It came coupled with the Beethoven Violin Concerto for which they brought along none less a violinist than Vadim Repin. (Somehow, even the arguably greatest active violinist was not draw enough to fill all seats in this Concerto Winderstein organized concert.)

Elegance, feeling, and perfection are a given with Repin’s performances – and his rendition at the Gasteig was no different from that. He plays his Beethoven with brio, confidence, and stateliness. He does not give into the work or surrender to its mysteries, he subdues it with sheer skill and the forcefulness of his musicality. It’s not as infinitely pure as Julia Fischer’s approach, nor with the same stern delicacy, but Repin offers an abundance of moods and hues (if less of the shades than he is capable of). There is little that is hushed, ethereal (Fischer), or – on the other end of the interpretive spectrum – bold, aggressively lean, with premeditated freshness Zehetmair).

Vadim Repin’s is a middle of the road romantic approach – and just about the best in that spectrum. His tone, like a needle through leather – round, strong, steady, reminded more than once of Nathan Milstein, even though Repin professes to “always thinks about Menuhin in terms of this work”. (Apparently Repin had briefly considered the Beethoven/Schneiderhan cadenza from op.61a – the Piano version of the concerto – but opted for the traditional Kreisler-cadenza in performances and recording, after all; a missed opportunity to my ears, but hardly a serious quibble.) The WDR SO matched his excellence step by step with finely honed, well controlled playing.

The clearly delighted audience was then treated to the highly entertaining Paganini Variations for violin and orchestra on the folk ditty "O Mamma, mamma cara" op. 10 - which all Germans are familiar with as the children's song "Mein Hut, der hat Drei Ecken" (My hat, it has three corners). Like relief from the stern Beethoven - and a shot of high octane virtuosity that the concerto doesn't offer, the encore predictably brought the house down.

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D.Shostakovich, Symphony No.4,
S.Bychkov / WDR SO

What followed might have, nay: should have been the highlight of the concert – except that an audience largely in attendance to hear Repin and Beethoven did not seem to agree. Instead they left either right after the Beethoven of as soon as the last note had stopped resounding in the Philharmonic. (A hard core of enthusiasts made up for it with extra vigorous, 10-minute applause.)

Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was done a tremendous service by Bychkov and his orchestra. Right off the bat with maximum aggression, high octane and decibel levels, an incredible energy and from 0 to 60 in two bars.

Bychkov did not slowly wake the beast (like Gergiev who needs 20-some minutes to get the momentum going in his Philips recording) nor did he engage in the ghastly and lean dances of a Barshai (Brilliant Classics). He went for maximum contrast and worked his orchestra like he stood at the console of a miraculously wondrous cacophonium. He managed to shock some audience members right with the first chord and continued to do so until the end. The ensemble-work of the strings – the first violins primi inter pares – had reference quality. The four flutes and two piccolos that worked their heart out in the first movement were shrill and lovely in being so. The climax of the first movement turned out a thing of thunderous beauty, demented hordes galloping hellward – without any false sense of sophistication, just raw emotion, coagulated blood, vodka, and gunpowder. The held flute notes after it were all the more unearthly with their high frequency flutters. The ensuing silence around trumpets and timpani more threatening.

Beautiful the tic-tocs into the false calm of the third movement’s opening – only to proceed to delve deeply into this strange, enervating, beautifully bizarre world that makes the Mahler-influenced first movement seem perfectly normal. Bychkov managed to tighten the music’s thumbscrews anew at every new start after an intermittent lull or (faux-) lyrical passage.

If someone ever felt compelled to make a film of Griffins having S&M sex, this would be the soundtrack for it: The shrieks, the brutality, the claws, the exhaustion, the climaxes and the pounding, and the relentlessness are harrowing and were particularly so in this performance. There could not be a more appropriate description of it, even if it risks being clichéd: Bychkov and orchestra were playing the hell out of the finale. But more distressing still, because of all that which preceded it,was the ensuing dreamy delicacy of the ticking-away of the symphony... the final breath and that mourning trumpet that sounded like a death knell ringing over a blood soaked battlefield on a Winter dawn … a comment on a victory everyone knows was a defeat.

No wonder Shostakovich kept the symphony in the drawer until de-Stalinization was under way. It would otherwise not only have been his fourth, but also his last symphony.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful, insightful review, Jens, particularly of the Shostakovich Fourth. (Love the line about the Griffins...)

Last December (for my birthday!) I heard Andrey Boreyko do a scorching reading with the New York Philharmonic. The more I hear it, the more I'm inclined to think it might be his greatest symphony.

Anonymous said...

wonderful review of the Fourth, i ordered the CD right after i finished reading it - thanks...

jfl said...

I have long tried to convince those who thought otherwise that the DSCH 4th is one of the great DSCH symphonies, easily on par with 5, 7, 11. (I'm also *really* taking to 15, these days.)

It wasn't even a live performance that did it for me, it was Jansons' recording (after being prepared by the very fine Barshai and Gergiev recordings).

Brutal, touching... I love it.