Last season Semyon Bychkov conducted the LSO in an “outstanding” performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony. This year he returned to conduct the First, the “Titan”, achieving similar success in a magnificent performance which radiated youthful zeal.

Leonidas Kavakos  ©  Decca/Daniel Regan
Leonidas Kavakos
© Decca/Daniel Regan

A change of programme replaced Osvaldo Golijov’s Violin Concerto – still incomplete and somewhat overdue – with that of Alban Berg. This was perhaps no bad thing, as the Berg gave the programme a pleasing coherence. Berg and his contemporaries were famously influenced by Mahler, and the latter’s Ninth Symphony, with its graceful acceptance of death, was easily detectable tonight. The shadow of Mahler overlies the whole work in its dedication “to the memory of an angel”, Manon Gropius, daughter of Mahler’s wife Alma from a later marriage, who succumbed to polio aged 18.

Soloist Leonidas Kavakos’ playing was musically excellent. After early flashes from the young Manon’s life, he and Bychkov opted for a relatively introverted performance, suggestive more of graceful acceptance of death than frank grief. Engagement between soloist and orchestra was strongly conversational in the first movement, Kavakos giving delightfully close attention to marked staccato in answer to the string section. The solo line, though ever present and influencing all around it, was a very convincing and unobtrusive representation of the young girl. His display of technical excellence was fascinating, with a high degree of control even in simultaneous bowing and pizzicato, preventing any disruption of the atmosphere. There was a particularly lovely moment when the first violins drifted with consummate grace into unison with Kavakos near the end of the work. Bychkov’s unfussy, batonless conducting, showing a wonderful fluidity of gesture, brought the music to its still conclusion with fine orchestral playing all around.

Several of Mahler’s very strongest influences from his youth are apparent in his Symphony no. 1, from birdcalls to military barracks and the death of children. The opening, a sustained violin harmonic, was beautifully depictive of dawn, full of dewy clarity and coolness. The off-stage trumpet fanfare, played from just beyond a door at the side of the stalls, was much too close to the hall, barely sounding off-stage at all, but otherwise Bychkov steadily brought the music to its Wayfarer theme (from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen). The pacing throughout the movement was excellent, initially suggestive of setting out slightly stiff and cautious but quickly being overwhelmed by the joys of nature, manifested in a slow accelerando. There was a fine balance between youthful fanfare and the slow, misty aspects of the music, but it was the former which won the battle, the end of the movement racing to a thrilling exuberant close.

The two inner movements of Mahler 1 could scarcely be more different, but saved here by the fine playing of the nine basses common to both. The Ländler of the second movement had a pleasing lilt to its pulse. Here the basses played with vigorous, though not overpowering, joie de vivre. Their return after a very gentle trio was quite a jolt, and the music danced whole-heartedly, prompting much smiling in the audience. The third movement, a minor-key round on Frère Jacques, featured fine solos from principal bass and woodwinds. There was a real sense of tragedy in the long-arched lines and very slow tempo, and the winds took delight in interrupting as a Klezmer band. The violins’ major-key passage (in which the soloist sings of his linden tree in the Lieder) glowed with a beautifully soft warmth.

The finale exploded violently into a ferocious, tormented opening, with impassioned brass and percussion playing. The ensuing soft passages were handled with careful, meditative legato by contrast, and Bychkov’s conducting set a steady pace for the rise and eventual victory of brassy heroism. The horns stood for their final chorus, which charged boyishly towards the most energetic of conclusions with thundering bass drum and timpani.

LSO Artist Portrait: Leonidas KavakosRohan Shotton reviews Semyon Bychkov conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 and Berg Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos at the Barbican4