Recently anointed Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov has been guest-conducting the greatest orchestras of the world on both sides of the Atlantic for a long time. He has had, over the years, a special relationship with the New York Philharmonic, conducting the ensemble quite often. He started this season’s two subscription weeks stint with a program pairing two less-performed Romantic works with a 20th-century, major symphony.

Semyon Bychkov © Chris Christodoulou
Semyon Bychkov
© Chris Christodoulou

Brahms composed his Tragic Overture – and its merrier and better-known companion, the Academic Overture – while spending a summer vacation in Bad Ischl in 1880. Including three, rather than the usual two main subjects, the work could have easily played the role of a symphony’s first movement. Alas, even if the composer displays his usual skill in braiding and developing the themes, the basic material has nothing extraordinary. The Philharmonic’s instrumentalists did not bring any true shine to the score, playing seemingly half-heartedly and not always accurately. Not even the clever transformation of the first theme into a brief, solemn brass chorale in D major (horns, trombones and tuba) was able to sufficiently raise the dramatic tension.

Having quite a successful career in Europe, the French pianist Bertrand Chamayou appears only infrequently on the American stages. Making his belated debut with the New York Philharmonic, he was the soloist in Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto. A relatively lightweight, delicate piece, composed in the shadows of Mozart, Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber, the concerto is closer to Chopin’s Romanticism than Liszt’s big statements. Chamayou emphasized the geniality and expressiveness of this music, especially evident in the Andante, which had, in his interpretation, a Mozartean charm. He avoided displaying any signs of empty virtuosity, even if it was clear that his technique is as good as anyone’s. Chamayou’s approach was always restrained, his coloring scheme a faded pastel, not an in-your-face, ostentatious one. Unfortunately, he had difficulties bringing the orchestra along in his poetic quest, the instrumentalists dutifully performing their parts without too much enthusiasm. The Saturday night audience warmly expressed its appreciation for Chamayou’s performance but, for whatever reason, the pianist did not play any encore. Hopefully, he will be invited to perform again in New York quite soon. A recital would probably give music lovers a better chance to evaluate his talent.

After intermission, the David Geffen Hall seemed to be hosting a different ensemble. Now, with all four principal woodwind players on stage, with especially fine solo performances from concertmaster Frank Huang, oboist Liang Wang and clarinetist Anthony McGill, the ensemble immersed itself with unbridled passion into a rendition of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, poignantly conducted by maestro Bychkov. Composed in 1937, one year after the denunciation in the Soviet daily Pravda of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as “muddle instead of music” and, allegedly, characterized by the composer himself as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism”, the symphony has been in the center of an unending and unwinnable battle between those that consider Shostakovich as a hidden “dissident” and those who believe that he did whatever he needed to do, including numerous artistic compromises, in order to survive in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Undoubtedly, Bychkov has his own opinion on the subject. But, on this occasion at least, he seemed to be focusing his attention on exposing the splendors of the music itself, without any additional considerations. He underlined the beautiful overall arch. He revealed the score’s Beethovenian and Mahlerian roots. He brought forward all those traits that make this music unique: the innovative sound balances, the constant swinging between abstract dissonances and popular, moving tunes, between grim pessimism and hope laced with irony.

Always an epitome of modesty, Semyon Bychkov proved again that, given the right circumstances and the proper enthusiasm for a given opus, a conductor doesn’t need more than a couple of rehearsals to shake out the routine and get outstanding results.