Tonight it was a family affair: Semyon Bychkov returned to Amsterdam with his wife Marielle Labèque and her sister Katia. The French siblings reunited with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra after more than 15 years in the solo parts for Mozart’s Concerto in E flat for two pianos. After the break, the enormous orchestral layout for Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie contrasted amusingly to the Mozartian scale of the first half of the concert. Strauss conducted his last symphonic poem – a Nietzschean-inspired journey up and down an Alp – many times with the RCO, so the work takes on a mythical quality when performed here. The Russian maestro stimulated an energetic journey, lacking just a bit in cohesion, but resulting an emotionally satisfying experience.

Katia and Marielle Labèque © Umberto Nicoletti
Katia and Marielle Labèque
© Umberto Nicoletti

Written in the 1770s, Mozart composed his concerto K365 for two solo parts; most likely as a piece to perform with his sister Nannerl. When last performed by the RCO several years ago in another family affair, the Jussen brothers offered a youthful fraternal dynamic. As sisterly synergy dominated tonight's performance, the refined sisters Labèques highlighted the mature nuances of Mozart’s work. Throughout, the expressive Katia rejoiced in the proud marches and chases, while Marielle complemented with a contrasting weighty finesse, specifically when she created romantic intimacy in the slow movement. Working with family clearly has its advantages!

After Bychkov introduced the theme of the Allegro, the Labèques opened with beautifully echoing quavers. They crisply exposed the melody, highlighted the extravagant chases, and provided clarity to their individual passages. Clearly attuned to each other, the sisters balanced each other nicely. However, they seemed too focused on each other, appearing detached from the orchestra, already suffering from a lack of Mozartian cheer under Bychkov. Though, compared with the large passages for the soloists, the conductor can only offer what little accompaniment Mozart provided (a later version with additional clarinets, timpani, and trumpets is lost). A highlight of the evening occurred during the Andante, when Bychkov spotlighted oboist Alexei Ogrintchouk in his lyrical duet full of wondrous romance with Marielle. In the Rondo: Allegro, the sisterly partnership peaked again with Katia exciting during Mozart's cadenza chase leading into the finale. Afterwards, the sisters demonstrated their technical mastery with a quatre-mains encore of Ravel’s “Le Jardin Féerique” from Ma mère l'oye.

After the break, Bychkov returned with Strauss’ Alpensinfonie. As the Russian maestro introduced “Night” in all its mystery, a dense musical fog of descending scales permeated the Concertgebouw that quickly made way for “Sunrise”. Brass announced the triumphant journey of its young protagonist in the “The Ascent”. The doors of the Great Hall opened: a dozen horns played scattered around off-stage in the Concertgebouw launched into the glorious vistas of Alpine mountain ranges. Later, lovely picturesque moments occurred in “Strolling by the Stream”, while glistening notes erupted from the wind and percussion sections during “At the Waterfall”. In “a mountain pasture” Bychkov offered pastoral serenity complemented by the rattling of cowbells, adding to the whimsical mood. Bychkov cloaked “Lost in the Thickets and Undergrowth” in a diaphanous veil, resulting in Strauss’ dense orchestration feeling muddled. Halfway through, “At the Summit” a highlight occurred after the brass introduced Strauss’ ‘peak motif’: Ogrintchouk sang proudly with his oboe as the gentle strings supported. Then the other sections joined in, building up to the triumphant trombones and demanding timpani, provoking an Alpine chill on the skin. 

As the journey returned downward a few more highlights occurred. The harps provided tranquil moments in “Vision”. The sporadic, but brooding presence of the Great Hall’s majestic organ never went unnoticed. When “A Thunderstorm” built up, Bychkov shifted gears and demonstrated the RCO’s prowess as Marinus Komst on the timpani announced the Straussian tempest: the thunder machine bolted, the wind machine whooshed, each adding effectively to the excitement. After the storm subsided, harps, and strings provided the necessary catharsis during the “Sunset”, offering the audiences a soothing calm. Then the journey came to a close, and Bychkov sustained the unwinding tension of Strauss’ long-winded meandering. This accumulated in the silence afterwards, complemented by the utter focus from the listeners, ending the evening in a serene place. 

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