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Ionarts at Large: Semyon Bychkov (& Manny Ax) in Chopin and Rachmaninov

Semyon Bychkov was in Munich not long ago – presenting first ‘his’ West German Radio Symphony Orchestra (WDRSO) in spectacular Shostakovich and very fine Beethoven. Shortly thereafter, in April, he conducted the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in two concerts – as scheduled with Emanuel Ax in Chopin (Concerto No.2 in e-minor) and Rachmaninov (Second Symphony) and again when he replaced Daniele Gatti later that month (Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and Beethoven’s Second Symphonies).

available at AmazonChopin, Piano Concerto No.2 et al., Ax / Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Mackerras
(released June, 30th, 1998

available at AmazonChopin, Piano Concerto No.1 et al., Ax / Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Mackerras
(released March, 16th, 1999
When he led the Bavarian ‘Cousin’ orchestra of the WDRSO through the Chopin on April 17th and 18th, he ensured perfect ensemble work to accompany the soloist. Ax gets older, his hair whiter and less domineering of his head, but he plays ever nimbly and the Second Chopin concerto is, in any case, a thankful vehicle for Ax’s sunny, never too indulgent, art. It could be considered one of his calling cards – not the least since his notable 1998 Sony recording(s) on an Érard piano. The result was more than a pleasant run-through and less than an inspiring performance. (Admittedly it would be difficult for me to imagine how that concerto would have to be played in order to actually be inspiring.)

Meanwhile the ears were more than satisfied with the sinuous Larghetto that arose softly after the Maestoso, which was a calm affair pleasantly supplanted by the Allegro vivace which could have been a tad more spirited. Chopin was well served, the audience entertained, and Ax cajoled into offering more splendidly regal Chopin as an encore.

For a composer who wrote symphonies, Rachmaninov is not known for them in the way that other great (or equally famous) composer are. Where symphonies are among the main draws even for Brahms and Schumann, who wrote many more, arguably better, works in other genres, the three symphonies of Rachmaninov are more an afterthought to his compositions that include piano in any form.

I approximated these symphonies from skeptical distance myself, first appreciating Mikhail Pletnev’s recording of the Second as an eye- and ear-opener. And specifically with the Second Symphony I suspect that the key to a successful performance thereof might be to somehow tear the musical material out of its all-too easily assumed role as symphonic tapestry for a concerto without solo instrument. The music needs to be emancipated from its role as sweeping, romantic, sumptuous support for a soloist who never shows up.

Strong ideas, small musical cells, prominent themes, or a clear, linear development are all hallmarks of a successful, lastingly popular symphony. Rachmaninov’s opus 27 doesn’t quite fit that bill and the result sounds like a Sibelius Symphony between its highpoints, marred by Tchaikovskean triviality and irrelevance. César Cui wasn’t all that imperceptive in his criticism of Rachmaninov’s Symphony (the First, not the Second) when he attested it “broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, […] quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, [and] the complete absence of themes.” The Second Symphony was received more favorably and it contains moments of grace to be enjoyed. But it needs all the help from the conductor and orchestra that it can get, and even then isn’t a masterpiece.

Unlike the Piano Concertos, the symphonies sound bound – perhaps constrained – by tradition. They are worlds away from Scriabin – closer to Schumann than the contemporary Nielsen, much less Schoenberg or Stravinsky. Rachmaninov is more in the symphonic league of a Myaskovsky. That’s no insult – Myaskovsky’s symphonies are worth seeking out – but it means that interpreters have to work hard with the music to transcend pleasantry and arrive at – or near – something memorable.

Bychkov and the largely faultless, occasionally enthused orchestra came very close. They achieved the possibility of a great symphonic evening where one listens attentively and with great hope, despite the misgivings of prejudice. This atmosphere isn’t the set-up for disappointment in case they did not arrive entirely, but rather the springboard to greatness that, unjumped, still leaves you at “very good”. And “very good” this performance was, indeed.

The Largo of the first movement lumbers darkly, shot through with ripely lyrical moments. The a-minor Allegro molto second movement rides along in catchy manner, easily the most characterful of the four movements, less plangent and perfectly serving the indulgent moments of sweet drama and suspension. The third movement – Adagio – has rarely sounded so coherent (almost epic) and uncloying to these ears. But if all went well in the Adagio, there is still the legitimate fear that the concluding Allegro vivace might cheapen all that had been arduously gained before it. It is unapologetically romantic swoop’n’swoon replete with bombast and treacly strings.

Bychkov navigated through it quickly and safely enough that even the most treacherously sticky moments passed safely. With that careful stewardship he capped a performance that must be considered all the greater a success for the musicians to the degree that it isn’t considered one for the composer.

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