Prom 46: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov/Denis Matsuev, Royal Albert Hall, London
Monday 24 August 2009
Semyon Bychkov is one of the warmest of Russian conductors, and presided over what could have been a rather icy Prom. With a compelling splash of waterworlds in the UK premiere of a new work by Detlev Glanert, Shostakovich's ferocious Symphony No 11 and Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as sandwich filler, the evening grew in power, finishing on a tremendous high as Shostakovich shook his fist at tyranny.
Glanert's Shoreless River transforms music from his opera-in-progress, The Wooden Ship, into a 20-minute tone-poem about the power of water, opening with eerie bells and encompassing a marvellous range of contrasted paces, colours and effects. And with swooping Mahlerian strings and a fervent cor anglais solo, Glanert also proclaims the continuing power of melody. Apart from one moment slightly reminiscent of Jaws, this was an auspicious presentation.
Not so the Rachmaninov, where pianist Denis Matsuev proved that he could play very fast, very quietly and can do cool double octaves. But we waited fruitlessly for a hint of Rachmaninov's magic – his imagination, poetry, passion, darkness and mischief. There should be more to it than the right notes.
Shostakovich's Symphony No 11, The Year 1905, must be the most graphic musical description in history of a massacre. Officially, it's a portrait of the failed Communist uprising in 1905 against the Tsar, but its true inspiration was the Hungarian revolution of 1956.
The opening calm gives way to a gathering storm, exploding as the militaristic pacing of the drums transforms into gunfire. There's tremulous horror, and a viola requiem to the fallen; the final section regroups in defiance, the brass crying shame on the tyrants. Shostakovich uses Communist protest anthems as melodic material, employing the Soviets' own songs to damn them.
Bychkov controlled this mighty machine as if he'd written it himself, masterfully handling tricky gear shifts – the drum pushing ever harder, the brief evaporation of hope in a single crash of the tam-tam. The orchestra sounded hot – in several senses – and could have used more preparation for the Glanert. But energy built throughout the symphony, ending in radiant commitment while church bells reminded the oppressors that they must someday answer to a greater authority than their own.
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