With this, the fifth disc in his ongoing Shostakovich cycle, Semyon Bychkov tackles the mighty tenth symphony with his WDR Sinfonie-Orchester Köln. Recorded as a Hybrid SACD on Avie, it's a distinguished addition to what looks to be turning into a very fine cycle indeed.
Bychkov's approach is characterised by meticulous preparation and precise execution; he creates an impressive sense of the work's architecture. This is especially tricky in the long first movement which is built up with patience and a proper sense of inexorable momentum. Bychkov is helped by some excellent individual contributions, particularly the principal clarinet and flute. He also creates a telling contrast between the sombre, bleak music of the opening and the ironic second subject, where his orchestra produce a nice sense of a limping lilt. He ratchets up the tension in the development section with unsmiling single-mindedness and the effect is irresistible.
The famous scherzo is not initially as furious as in some other versions but, cleverly, this allows a little more room for manoeuvre and contrast so that, once again the overall impression is extremely powerful, helped by playing from the orchestra that is fleet-footed and iron-fisted by turns. The stilted grotesquery of the third movement and the contrasting lyrical sections are likewise expertly captured (there's some excellent horn playing too). Bychkov's reading brings out a lot of the music's sheer beauty both here an in the slow introduction to the finale. His strings, especially, are just at home digging out a martial figure as they are in their long, lyrical lines.
The finale itself, after the slow introduction, is given a rip-roaring performance that retains the sense of ambiguity that's so important; there's humour and lightness – once again, the wind players are excellent – but Bychkov knows when to unleash the fury too. This might not be the most overtly incandescent performance of this work, but it's one that captures well it's many facets. Bychkov seems to be placing Shostakovich properly in the symphonic tradition, creating a sense of unity in his performance that can, in the hands of others, be lost in the desire to squeeze all the thrills out of local details.
A particular bonus on this disc is a performance of Detlev Glanert's Theatrum bestiarum (subtitled 'Songs and dances for large orchestra'). Although the booklet contains a musical CV for the composer and an interview with him in which he touches on aspects of this work, it tells us very little about the piece itself and what it sets out to achieve. However, it's a testimony to the quality of the work – and Bychkov's performance – that this didn't really undermine my enjoyment of it. It is a work influenced to a certain extent by Shostakovich who, as Glanert says, 'often arranged his cynical side in dance-forms even if he develops a very beautiful melody into quite twisted rhythms'. However, Glanert's virtuosic treatment of the orchestra transcends any influences.
The first part seems to capture the 'Theatrical bestiary' of the title perfectly in its ordered cacophony. The second part, with a major role for the organ, is often very beautiful; the third is a twisted, gnarly dance. Glanert says elsewhere in his interview when asked if he thinks in pictures when composing that he does, 'but no concrete pictures, no specific scenes or stages. It is rather a very abstract fantasy.' It is this sense of fantasy and the ability of his music to fire the listener's own imagination that makes this work so interesting.
This is, then, an extremely fine release, excellently recorded. I have one minor complaint regarding the very poorly translated booklet essay on the Shostakovich, but apart from that, this can be recommended without reservation.
By Hugo Shirley