Friday 15 January 2016

Watkins/BBC SO/Bychkov - Glanert, Haydn, and Brahms, 12 January 2016

Barbican Hall

Detlev Glanert – Brahms-Fantasie – ‘heliogravure’ for orchestra
Haydn – Cello Concerto no.1 in C major
Brahms – Symphony no.1 in C minor, op.68

Paul Watkins (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

The BBC Symphony Orchestra is fortunate indeed to have Semyon Bychkov as a regular collaborator; he holds the orchestra’s Günter Wand Conducting Chair. In this concert, we heard what a difference a great conductor makes to these players. The depth of string tone almost had one believe this was one of the great German orchestras, and that was not simply a matter of numbers.

One certainly heard that to good advantage in Detlev Glanert’s Brahms-Fantasie. The opening disintegration of Brahms augured well, perhaps echoing Henze’s Tristan. However, the rest meandered in drearily neo-Romantic fashion (the work rather than the performance), hovering somewhere between Shostakovich and Khatchaturian. A spot of sub- – very sub-! – Heldenleben battle-music sounded merely incongruous. This was not merely eclectic, but eclecticism with a vengeance – and, more to the point, without any apparent point. The performance seemed excellent, but I cannot imagine anyone wanting to hear the work again.

Haydn, then, was just the tonic we needed. Cultivated playing announced itself from the opening bars of his First Cello Concerto. A sensible tempo – God be thanked! – was adopted, Paul Watkins responding very much in kind. His playing as soloist was lively, characterful, full of joy in a melodious gift that almost approaches that of Mozart (although the music never really sounds ‘like’ his in what is, in every respect, a pre-Mozartian concerto). Thematic construction and development were, quite rightly, the thing. It was again an immense relief to have the aria-like slow movement not taken too fast. It flowed as it would have done from a great singer in a performance of surpassing elegance. The finale possessed many of the virtues of the first movement, including a well-chosen (of course, faster) tempo, which permitted the music to breathe. Excitement was musical rather than externally, artificially applied to it as in so many contemporary Haydn performances. Watkins’s virtuosity was not of the high-octane variety; it was full of musical life. As was that of the orchestra.

Brahms’s First Symphony opened in medias res; there was no doubting its tragic import, at least here. There was freshness too, similarly an allied Romantic intimacy, not least from the cellos (a nice link there, consciously or otherwise, with the Haydn). The exposition proper likewise exhibited a Schumannesque Romanticism one rarely hears here. This was, on the whole, quite a brisk account, but not unduly so, for Bychkov ensured impressive responsiveness to the composer’s twists and turns – which are many! It is surely as ‘difficult’ a work as the First String Quartet, although perhaps rather more ingratiating. I loved the archaisms from reedy woodwind, supported and/or modified by brass: very nineteenth-century Bach! Developmental struggle itself, though, was quite rightly more Beethovenian in character, if not necessarily sounding ‘like’ Beethoven. Consciously or otherwise, intervallic relationships signalled close kinship with Webern.  Melancholic lyricism, often cruelly foreshortened, was, however, entirely Brahms’s own.

The second movement was, again, quite swift, though not unreasonably so. There was no lack of involvement in any sense: emotional, motivic, rhythmic (those cross-rhythms!) Harmonic shifts told their own story: both in the moment and in the longer term. A beautifully-played violin solo from Giovanni Guzzo was not the least pleasure here. The third movement was warmer, more spring-like than autumnal, at least to begin with. Darker undercurrents were not ignored, but I wondered whether they might have been made more of; that, however, might not have been so consistent with Bychkov’s conception of the work. Again, the music was taken quickly, but flowing rather than being harried.

Darkness proper returned at the opening of the finale, thematic reminiscences darkening the mood further. That most difficult of transitions was well handled, trombones sounding splendid, as did the horns. And yet, it was difficult not to feel that something was missing: there was less at stake, so it sounded, than with a great account such as Furtwängler’s or, latterly, Barenboim’s. Moreover, a few gear changes were a little less subtle than they might have been. Here, and only here, the music did not sound more than the sum of its considerable parts. There was no doubting, however, the excellence of the playing Bychkov drew from the orchestra.