While Britain was still at the polls, birthday boys Brahms and Tchaikovsky slugged it out in friendly battle at the Barbican. In the event, it was an uneven contest. Isabelle Faust sparred gently on behalf of Brahms in a finely spun rendition of the Violin Concerto, but Semyon Bychkov and the London Symphony Orchestra delivered a knockout punch for the Russian in a bruising performance of the Fifth Symphony.

Semyon Bychkov © Musacchio Ianniello
Semyon Bychkov
© Musacchio Ianniello

Tchaikovsky’s verdict on Brahms (“I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard!”) is oft-quoted, but the two composers got on well when they met in 1888. Perhaps he was annoyed at the way critics such as Eduard Hanslick had proclaimed Brahms as the “guardian of the classical tradition”, whereas his own works were being rubbished or ignored. Brahms’ Violin Concerto is very different to Tchaikovsky’s, written in the same key (D major) and in the same year (1878); it’s much more classically structured and straight-laced than the wild abandon and melancholy vein that Tchaikovsky mines. Isabelle Faust pointed up these aspects of the score in a rendition which was beautifully played, but emotionally rather controlled and contained.

Faust maintained incredible stillness as a performer, her only significant footwork coming in the finale. Her playing was silky smooth, finding a delicate, almost brittle tone, wisps of sound emerging from a bow that at times barely scratched the strings of her 1704 “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius. The first movement was notable for the use of Busoni’s 1913 cadenza, which contains a signifcant role for timpani – reflecting the similar cadenza in Beethoven’s piano version of his Violin Concerto. The interplay between violin and timpani was both dramatic and playful, earning Antoine Bedewi special praise from Faust at the end. Bychkov drew expansive playing from the orchestra, the LSO strings glowing softly like dying embers.

The Adagio received a beautiful performance, with a mellifluous long-breathed oboe solo from Olivier Stankiewicz, and gossamer playing from Faust. The Hungarian dance finale was only lightly sprinkled with paprika, being more elfin in nature, almost Mendelssohnian in its airy lightness. We did get a taste of Hungary in the encore, György Kurtág’s Doloroso, almost unbearably fragile, fading away to nothing.

From the very start of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, we were plunged into Russian gloom. Inky clarinets, mournful cellos and sepulchral double basses (boosted to nine in number from the five employed for Brahms) set the doom-laden tone as the ‘fate’ motif was established. Bychkov led a fiery, turbulent of the first movement, lacerating brass and gunshot timpani adding dramatic punctuation to the score.

Bychkov introduced an element of restraint in the Andante cantabile. After brooding lower strings and the noble horn solo at the start, he allowed the long phrases time to unfurl naturally – Andrew Marriner (clarinet) and Rachel Gough (bassoon) epsecially eloquent, until brass angrily interrupted with the ‘fate’ motif reminder. The passage featuring solo oboe over pizzicato strings was heartstopping.

The third movement waltz had the requisite lilt, while the woodwinds chattered and strings scurried in the central episode. It was unfortunate that Bychkov paused before launching into the fourth movement – the impact of the clarinet/bassoon prodding at the fate motif towards the end of the waltz is stronger if immediately reiterated by the strings at the start of the finale. Brass playing had plenty of weight here, satisfyingly bright and incisive. Bychkov, if anything, pulled on the reins a little too much, so that the symphony’s denouement didn’t quite hurtle into the abyss. The final pages still had a moving ‘triumph through adversity’ quality to cap a tremendous performance. At full-time, 1-0 to Tchaikovsky.