Wednesday, September 12, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Semyon Bychkov, week 2

I'm not sure what happened with this program. Originally, Bychkov was scheduled to conduct Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony. I would have loved to have heard what he could make of that. But then it was changed to the Eleventh.

I have to say I was a little disappointed at that news. Not that I don't love the Eleventh. Though it has four movements, it doesn't have at all the structure of a traditional symphony, but is a free-flowing continuous tone poem of enormous size, about half sorrowfully mournful, a quarter vehemently determined, and one quarter absolutely hair-raising in intensity, depicting the events around the Winter Palace massacre of 1905 (the official and stated interpretation) or sub-rosa objecting to the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which had just happened at the time the work was written (the revisionist interpretation).

But I'd heard Bychkov conduct SFS in this work before. This was probably 20 or more years ago, but it still stays in my mind as one of the most memorable concerts I've ever attended, and for me it first marked Bychkov as a conductor to watch. I didn't really need to repeat it, and would have liked to have heard him work his magic on something else.

So after all these years, how fared his Eleventh? Wonderfully balanced and blended sound from the orchestra, of course - at the ovation he gave a special bow to the violas, who give out the first theme - and all the tremendous power the piece needs. But it also got a little eccentric at times, with odd tempo gyrations in the third and fourth movements. In the second movement, the alarmingly vivid portrait of the march on the Winter Palace, Bychkov used to conduct the actual massacre - a moment that you cannot miss - twice as fast as Kiril Kondrashin, the Soviet conductor whose recording I learned this piece from.* Now he conducts it three times as fast.

The change from the Leningrad to the Eleventh, which while monumental is slightly less enormous, left room for an addition to the program, in the form of Schubert's Unfinished. This again was eloquent and beautifully played and balanced, yet offered in a soft, gentle tone resembling Schubert's symphonic juvenilia, and, as so often in such cases, defying the program notes, which emphasized the break from Schubert's earlier work.

Maybe the addition is what prompted Bychkov to play the Shostakovich so fast and the Schubert so lightly. I didn't check its actual running time, but we were out by 10 pm, which with a program this large and heavy shouldn't have happened.

* So do most other conductors these days. I haven't seriously checked the score to see which tempo, vis-a-vis the surrounding passages, it actually endorses, but I really should.

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