BBC Prom 34: Dubugnon and Strauss

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov

Royal Albert Hall, 12 August 2012 4.5 stars

Semyon BychkovIn the morning of 8th August 2012, on the day of this concert, the BBC Symphony Orchestra announced that Semyon Bychkov will join their roster of conductors with a position created especially for him by the orchestra. The title Günter Wand Conducting Chair was chosen in recognition of the affection and respect that the Orchestra held for the conductor who was appointed their Principal Guest Conductor exactly 30 years ago, and is mirrored in the relationship which they enjoy with Bychkov.

Full credit is due to the BBC SO for recognising Bychkov’s exceptional qualities and for assuring continued work with him. Although on the periphery of celebrity status, music itself firmly remains Bychkov’s primary focus. He chooses to serve music with all available means rather than to reverse the artist-music relationship for personal benefits (as seen far too often with over-marketed celebrities).  

Bychkov’s musical sensitivity and his respect for appropriate musical styles slightly backfired with Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ symphony, which opened this concert. The hushed opening motive with the double basses sounded magical where I sat (not far from the stage) but I wonder if it was heard everywhere in the vast Albert Hall. Such pianissimo passages beautifully contrasted the more passionate but nevertheless always lyrical sections throughout the performance. However, it is possible that, on this occasion, the symphony was not only unfinished but also unheard in many beautifully shaped passages for some sections of the audience. (Twice since the concert I tried to listen to the performance on BBC’s iPlayer: I heard nothing until the oboe entry in bar 13. Then all those magical pianissimo passages kept disappearing from the air.) However, Bychkov’s chamber music like concept of Schubert’s symphony allowed the brass to sound majestic without any harshness (for instance, over the martial string passages in the second movement) and it facilitated lyrical dialogues for the wind soloists.

The instrumentation for Richard Dubugnon’s Battlefield Concerto for two pianos and orchestra – composed in 2011 for the Labèque sisters but receiving its UK premier only now – brought Bartók to my mind. Dubugnon composed for two pianos with a vast number of percussions (as Bartók did in his Sonata for two pianos and percussion as well as for its orchestral version, the Concerto for two pianos with orchestra) and for two separate orchestras (as in Bartók’s Music for string instruments, percussion and orchestra). Indeed, some of Dubugnon’s strongly rhythmic, percussive passages were in the Bartók mould. But great many other influences were in evidence too: the composition seemed more eclectic than in one particular style, embracing jazz and blues elements too in the mix. The dedicatees, Katia and Marielle Labèque, had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their versatile pianistic abilities and superb team work. However, without the programme notes, I would have never guessed that I was listening to a battle between the two pianists (who each had its own army – hence two orchestras – and even their own trumpeter on each side of Henry Wood’s bust above the two orchestras). And there would have been no way of guessing that the composition was based on the impressive triptych Battaglia de San Romano by Paolo Uccelo (c. 1397-1475). However, Dubugnon’s music is engaging throughout, and it was an excellent choice for a Prom concert where many of the audience might have been new to classical music. It was the favourite part of the concert for the family of four who sat behind me, although the Labèque sisters had quite a bit to do with this  preference. Audience reception on the whole was slightly unsure after the Dubugnon, but there was no holding back of spontaneous cheers after the Labèque sisters’s encore of the ‘Jet Song’ from Bernsteins’s West Side Story. Rightly so.

In fairness to Dubugnon, the dramatic plot of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben would also be difficult to guess without programme notes. When Strauss first conducted his score in 1899, he included his programmatic titles for the six parts of his gigantic movement. However, he later withdrew the titles; my 1924 Eulenburg mini score is without those six titles although the main title – translated as A Hero’s Life – is kept. With or without titles, the forty-five minutes long movement represents the struggles of the composer.

There was no doubt in Semyon Bychkov’s interpretation that he portrayed a heroic life. Notwithstanding Strauss’s huge orchestra – 3 flutes, 3 oboes, choir anglais (also 4th oboe),  clarinet in E flat, 2 clarinets in B flat, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contra bassoon, 8 horns (although the BBC SO fielded 9 horns), 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tenor tuba in B flat, bass tuba, 5 percussionists, 2 harps, timpani and strings (16, 16, 12, 12, 8) – Bychkov resisted any bombast. He focused on structure and orchestral colours, allowing clarity for Strauss’s contrapuntal texture. Clarity of the individual parts within the huge mass of sound was assured. The lyrical sections were gentle rather than milked, and nuances were lovingly catered for. Strauss’s outbursts were treated as high drama but they were always controlled. Bychkov is clearly passionate about the score but he delivered Strauss’s music with artistic integrity and discipline.

The orchestra played splendidly for Bychkov. Guest leader Sergey Levitin had the difficult task of leading all three pieces on the concert and also delivering what could be probably regarded as a mini concerto for violin and orchestra half-way through Strauss’s piece. Levitin was rock solid; he handled the virtuoso passages admirably. In the cantabile solo passages Levitin’s tone was unforced and freely flowing. However, the solo violin is supposed to represent the soprano Pauline de Ahna, Strauss’s very feminine and a little coquettish wife. Levitin’s presentation was neither feminine nor coquettish, but it was excellent violin playing supported by an excellent orchestra. Music was well served.


By Agnes Kory