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FringeReview UK 2019

BBC Proms 69

BBC, the Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov

Genre: Live Music, Music

Venue: Royal Albert Hall, Kensington


Low Down

Prom 69. Smetena’s Bartered Bride Overture was the first item in the Czech Philharmonic’s traversal helmed by Semyon Bychkov, followed by Russian soprano Elena Stikhina for the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The concert’s second half was given over to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor Op 65.


It’s a given that the return of that curtain-raiser Smetena’s Bartered Bride Overture should fizz with the woodwinds in the Czech Philharmonic’s traversal helmed by Semyon Bychkov, now their principal conductor from last October. You can tell how their years together meld the sharp palette of this orchestra to Bychkov’s long-breathed gambits.

Though not here just yet. The Smetena Overture and the following dances, a polka, furiante, and a circus polka on speed boast a tang and burnish a depth of engagement that’s infectious and sweeping. I doubt whether we’ve heard it this disinhibited yet drum-tight for years.

They’re joined by the rising Russian soprano Elena Stikhina for just the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The orchestra play their heart out here, still buzzy one feels with Smetena’s operatic brio and good spirits. It’s poignant to feel these should predominate knowing what we do of how Tatiana’s address was received by the titular anti-hero (even though he repented too late).

Stikhina’s already lived with this work for her six professional years and it’s a favourite. She also speculates about losing the fresh naivete is its core as an inevitable process. A young woman’s Romance-fed declarations aren’t any the less sincere for being book-infused.

Stikhina’s voice is already full, flexible (a sine qua non when young) and trumps one might say the wind and brass beautifully, though Bychkov and the Czech Phil are naturally responding to every twist in the way Stikhina expresses the text. She’s wonderful in following the inflections, hesitations and sudden rug-pulls of emotion, Proleptic of rejection, desperate with a fizz of hope, fearful it’ll be sniffed out with the chill of a winter forest.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor is the dark twin of No. 7 in C major of the previous year. Whereas that triumphalist blaze of defiance was in fact partly started before the Russians invaded in June 1941, this symphony is the bitter real thing, and the authorities loathed it.

It’s not hard to see why either. Dissonant, almost parodying the ingredients of No. 5’s opening gestures, de-tuning them, the work never settles into a big sweeping tune yet is full of startling melodies, never more so than in the second and third movements. Yet the C major at the end, unlike the Fifth’s forced D, or even the heroic Seventh’s horn-hefted C, is hard-won and perhaps the most sincere.

This is in the Greek sense a terrible symphony. It’s begotten in devastation from the start, begun in shattered Moscow, Leningrad having already proved too dangerous. But finished further east in Ivanovo at his friend Aram Khachaturian’s behest. Indeed from starting on July 2 1943 (just before the great tank Battle of Kursk) three movements were finished by 25 August and the whole premiered on November 4. To stony silence. But Evegny Mavrinsky, initially puzzled championed it and the work like others is dedicated to him.

The most phenomenal of all Shostakovich 8s at the Prom must surely be the one given by the Soviet Youth Orchestra, on August 8th 1991. That date might furnish a clue. The whole orchestra was about to defect if the military coup against Gorbachev had succeeded. It’s not just that this might have taken the USSR back to Brezhnev days: there were now huge instabilities that could have exploded. The young Soviets soon to be Russians and other nations again played at a white heat I’ve never encountered in any Shostakovich performance. It ought to e available.

Bychkov and the Czech Phil don’t quite see it that way of course. Bychkov refuses to indulge the dramas inherent in historico-biographical projection and he’s right. Instead he pits the Czech Phil’s great strengths – elegant string line, burbling and characterful wind section and a bright clean brass with a hint of Russian DNA just audible and strong timps and melds this in the opening Adagio moves to Allegro non troppo. Bychkov takes a long-breathed way with developing dissonance logically.

This pays off in the opening movement to make the crescendo and sudden desolation the more telling. The second Allegretto is a perky jazzy second movement, taken from his now rediscovered Jazz Suite No. 2. It’s a perky intrusion, and things darken in its companion, the devastating mechanical Allegro non troppo. This is the most thrilling music, more devastating even than the comparable scherzo in No. 10. The toccata speed with violas then jagged woodwind fanfares undercut by a woomph of thudding bass chords is stunning. Clarinets shrill like shrapnel. Not to recall that Battle of Kursk of a month previously would be perverse. Bychkov holds back until the whole crushes together n an explosive dissonance.

It’s so punishing the Largo that follows creeps in and you notice it as a kind of silent tonal lake, throbbing with possibilities not spelt out till the haunted Allegretto finale, which certainly takes its time, dawn over the battlefield – it’s often described as a dawn at least – limping to C major to be born. Bychkov relishes this moment, teases out the extraordinary emotional journey. There’s no doubt this probing reading gets to so much of this work.

And yet, I suppose having once been exposed to a searing white heat, I’m seared as a visceral seeker after extremes, and miss that slightly. At such moments, is it music madder than can be played? Bychkov stood still for nearly a minute and no-one breathed till his hands finally fell to his sides. It’s still such a traversal that brooked no encore. And makes you want to hear nothing the rest of the night. Overall a concert with an immensely satisfying traversal into darkness.