My colleague Martin Bernheimer has an expression, which I sometimes quote: “It was one of those nights at the opera.” Well, Tuesday night was one of those nights in the orchestra hall—a great night. A night to remember.
I’m talking about the New York Philharmonic, guest-conducted by Semyon Bychkov, the Russian born in 1952. The program followed a standard and hard-to-beat progression: overture, concerto, symphony. The overture was a very good one. The concerto was a piano concerto by a great composer. The symphony was a great one.
Incidentally, the concert began with a piece in D minor and ended with one, too. Coincidence? Deliberate bookends? Probably a coincidence, but a nice one.
Anyway, I’ll wade in. First on the program was the Tragic Overture of Brahms, and it began perfectly—with perfect precision, I mean. That is reassuring in a concert. The overture continued precisely, too. It was taut and disciplined, yet there was freedom within that discipline. George Szell conducted the Tragic Overture (and other things) much the same way. From Bychkov et al., the music never sagged. Intensity was maintained. You were on the edge of your seat from first note to last, at least mentally.
Problems? A few, I thought. The Tragic Overture, tragic as it is, includes some major-key music, which smiles. I would have liked more of a smile. Also, I would have liked a fatter, lusher, more Brahmsian sound at times. The Philharmonic’s sound was consistently on the severe side.
But that was all right, and Bychkov’s hand was never less than sure. The same is true of the Philharmonic’s playing, responding to that hand.
I will now make a comment about concert administration, if that’s the right term. After the overture, the stage had to be prepared for the piano concerto. This took a long, long time. It was as though an intermission had been forced on the audience, after less than fifteen minutes of music. This killed the momentum of the concert, in my opinion.
What can be done? Have the piano in place already, with the lid down, while the overture is being played? That would look weird, I know. I guess I don’t have answers. Maybe prepare the stage with greater dispatch?
Anyway, the piano concerto was the first of Mendelssohn, in G minor. Our soloist was Bertrand Chamayou, a Frenchman, who had recently played in Alice Tully Hall with Sol Gabetta, the cellist. This was a duo recital.
At the beginning of the Mendelssohn, Chamayou rushed a little, like a student—like pianists of all ages, frankly. But, in this first movement, he was generally tidy and competent, with a dash of style, too. In the middle movement, Andante, he was quasi-improvisatory, and rightfully so. The cellos did some nice singing. The final movement, I like a little lighter, a little more gossamer—more Mendelssohnian (think A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But Chamayou was commendable, and so was Bychkov, who brought out an element of the debonair.
Allow me some candid remarks about the piece, please. Now, I revere Mendelssohn, as we all do. But I don’t see what people see in this piano concerto. I wish I did. It’s hard for me to believe that the fellow who wrote the Octet at sixteen could have written this piano concerto at twenty-two. People sneer at the Grieg Piano Concerto and the Saint-Saëns concerto in G minor. Those things are the equivalent of the Brahms B flat compared with this effort by Mendelssohn, trust me. The concerto lasts about twenty minutes, but, to me, it feels like two days. I find it empty display and forced cheer.
Anyway, enough grumping from me about a great (composer).
People who heard the second half of the concert were lucky to be there—very. The Philharmonic played Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. Bychkov did not try to do too much too early. He had a sense of the long haul of the piece. He forced nothing. Note values were respected (something that may not seem like much but makes a big difference). What should have been legato was legato; what should have been marcato was marcato—and the contrasts had the desired effects.
Bychkov and the orchestra were together as though one. What he thought, and signaled, they responded to.
Shostakovich’s second movement had optimal swagger, menace, and beauty. And weirdness—Shostakovich-like weirdness. At the end, Bychkov did more toying with rhythm than I ordinarily like, but it worked.
How about the Largo, one of the most beautiful slow movements ever composed? The string choir played with the right beauty—sort of an afraid beauty. The entire movement came from deep within. I don’t know how else to put it.
Do you have to have been born in the Soviet Union to know how to conduct this music? (Shostakovich was composing in the Terror.) No, no, of course not. But I doubt it hurts.
Once the third movement is complete, I like the fourth, the finale, to start pretty quickly. Almost attacca. Bychkov took his time—but it was worth the wait. For the finale, he picked a tempo giusto, a right tempo, which is not easy to do. (Tastes vary.) Bychkov was fast, but not too much so. Indeed, the movement is marked “Allegro non troppo.” Before long, the principal trumpet, Christopher Martin, was soaring bewitchingly.
I hesitate to mention soloists in this performance, because I would have to go through virtually the whole roster. Let me just also mention Robert Langevin, the principal flute—who played with the requisite spooky beauty.
In my view, Bychkov put just one foot wrong in the finale: a cutesy hesitation. But that is like noticing a speck of dust on a gleaming Rolls. The cellos and basses growled superbly. The snare drum was very soft—and has seldom been more ominous. In the closing pages, Bychkov was not triumphant and defiant. The music was tired—sort of defeated—but determined to slog on. I think Shostakovich would have said, Yes.
Ladies and gentlemen, this was a great performance—a great reading, a great account. Is it possible to be bowled over by a piece so familiar? Yes, when it’s played or sung right. In a review earlier this week, I said that a conductor and orchestra had “left a lot on the table.” I’m not sure where that expression comes from—poker, maybe. What I meant was, there was much more music to mine, to be brought forth. On Tuesday night, Semyon Bychkov and the New York Philharmonic left nothing on the table. They got from the symphony everything it has—which is a lot.
I believe that Bychkov poured a lifetime of understanding into this performance. When I was a teenager in Michigan, he was the new guy—the new young Russian—in Grand Rapids. Somewhere along the line, he became . . . a great conductor.
This is what you go to concerts for, or hope to.