Encounters with conductor Semyon Bychkov are always a keenly anticipated pleasure, and this Proms concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was no exception. A Czech-flavoured first half brought together the first complete performance of Julian Anderson’s Prague-inspired Symphony no. 2, and the Concerto for two pianos and orchestra by Bohemian-born Bohuslav Martinů featuring the internationally renowned Labèque sisters.

Julian Anderson and Semyon Bychkov
© Chris Christodoulou

Dating from 1943 when the exiled Czech Martinů had settled in the United States, there was much to enjoy in his three-movement work, its aural landscape more Franco-Russian than Czech. There was a certain Gallic insouciance in the quicksilver finale, its jazzy ebullience redolent of Poulenc (whose own double concerto dates from 1932) – albeit with an American accent. No less scintillating was the opening Allegro ma non troppo which shared a similar rhythmic impulse, its swagger and syncopation given full rein by orchestra and soloists. Despite the virtuosity of Katia and Marielle Labèque, the scales and dancing patterns of the toccata-like textures outstayed their welcome, and from where I was sitting they felt largely under-projected. Introspection brought some relaxation for the Adagio, with its opening rhetoric incorporating sparkling figuration and soon giving way to colourful wind sonorities. If there was little in the way of emotional depth, there was plenty to enjoy from piquant dissonances (reminiscent of Prokofiev?) and more individual solo gestures from the pianists, with no small element of bravura and rumination.

Semyon Bychkov, Katia Labèque and Marielle Labèque
© Chris Christodoulou

Earlier, the BBCSO had given an assured performance of Anderson’s three-movement Symphony no. 2, subtitled "Prague Panoramas", a work co-commissioned by the BBC and dedicated to Bychkov, who premiered the first two movements in Munich earlier this year. Anderson has had a longstanding fascination with Czech culture but, notwithstanding the use of two well-known medieval hymns, he claims this symphony is not Czech in any way, nor is it programmatic. Inspiration for his creative energies came from Josef Sudek’s elegiac black-and-white photographs of the Czech capital taken in the 1950s and 1960s. For Anderson, the images evoked orchestral sonorities, which were captured in a broad panoramic sweep: its myriad instrumental combinations, initiated by stabbing brass chords, released in a brightly lit first movement where washes of colour (individual and collective) and rhythmic punch culminated in an arresting climax. No less engaging was the atmospheric central nocturne where church bells and four flutter tonguing flutes, providing otherworldly harmonics, caught the ear as part of an intense urban soundscape that found me thinking less is more. "Bells and Brawls" was the title originally conceived for the finale, its heading derived from depictions of pub brawls in cartoons by Josef Lada – a contemporary of Sudek. Packed with almost exhausting incident, this riotous and technically virtuosic movement was finally subdued by a quiet miasma of string and wind sonority.

Semyon Bychkov
© Chris Christodoulou

After the interval Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances found the BBCSO on gripping form, Bychkov now dispensing with the score and directing a performance that brought out both the drama and pathos of this swansong. The non allegro was strictly observed in a reading that showcased assertive and tender playing, with insistent timpani near the start and later an especially poignant saxophone. Brass could have snarled more for the Andante, but expressive solos came from Igor Yuzefovich (violin) and Max Spiers (cor anglais) before swirling silky strings brought magic, if not a sense of the macabre, to the lilting Waltz. Horns and trumpets illuminated the Dies irae in the Finale, and the movement's closing furlong brought excitement, if not unrestrained passion, to a highly polished performance.

****1