WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne/Bychkov/Shoji, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The Westdeutsche Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra of Cologne is scarcely in the top league of German bands.

The Westdeutsche Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra of Cologne is scarcely in the top league of German bands. It has, though, since 1997, boasted the Russian-born Semyon Bychkov as its chief conductor, and he has seemingly taken the orchestra to new heights.

The programme that Bychkov brought to the Festival Hall offered neither anything new (modern music used to be this orchestra's calling card) nor the big-name soloist considered almost essential to get a decent house these days for all but the most famous orchestras. There were just two works: Bruch's G Minor Violin Concerto, in which the soloist was the Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji; and Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony. (The fact that Bychkov and his orchestra have been recording the Shostakovich symphonies was clearly a factor here.)

Shoji is only 21, but her reputation is growing fast and she clearly has a sizeable Japanese fan base in London. She lives in Cologne, which helps to explain her presence in this concert. With a rock-solid technique and a big, hall-filling sound of great clarity, yet also an ability to vary her tone to respond to the work's familiar lyricism as well as to its dramatic side, Shoji made light of this concerto's more obvious challenges. But in the slow movement, things that were evidently intended to appear spontaneous, including a rather coyly playful approach to some ritardandos, had the opposite effect of sounding formulaic. The orchestral accompaniment was extremely well prepared, with some lovely touches.

In the Leningrad Symphony, the WDR orchestra was on even finer form and showed that it is, after all, a band to be reckoned with on the international front. One reason for choosing the work must have been its plentiful provision of opportunities for solo players to shine, and they did so here in abundance, especially the woodwind, with a beautifully soulful bassoon in the first movement, for instance, and a moving account of the big second-movement oboe solo that carefully avoided investing its Tchaikovskian tune with an excess of expressive angst.

The famous slow burn with side drum in the first movement began in cunningly deadpan fashion, and was built up with terrifying control to reach the required excesses of gaudy, hollow glory. Strings and brass, too, were impressive, with incisive violins in the first-movement, warm and capable violas capturing the essence of their big moment in the third, and blazing brass standing to attention at the symphony's close.

But even orchestral prowess and inspired direction could not convince me that the Leningrad is anything but the two-dimensional, overlong and overhyped work that many have always rated it.

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