Few works come as heavily freighted with politics as Shostakovich’s Seventh – conceived and premiered as a cry from the depths during the siege of Leningrad – and although Semyon Bychkov was born ten years later, he’s made it his calling card for very personal reasons.
For his mother, who lived through the siege, ‘it’s engraved in blood’, he says, and it dramatizes in sound all the hopes and fears, memories and fantasies of her generation.
But he approaches it as a series of landscapes with very long perspectives: the side-drum which ushered in the invasion theme seemed at first to suggest the prettiness of a dance, and built only very gradually to its climactic whirl of blood and iron. Each movement was fastidiously shaped, but the parade of effects was magnificent, with angular brass fanfares (nine horns) sprinkled with gold-dust from the harps; bassoon and flute solos over yearning unison strings; and the final sarabande sounding an almost Handelian lament for the valiant dead; under this maestro’s direction the BBC Symphony Orchestra found world-beating form. The other work in their programme was Martinu’s rarely-performed Concerto for two pianos and orchestra, whose New World exuberance was brilliantly brought out by the evergreen Katia and Marielle Labeque.