Semyon Bychkov gave a highly interesting Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 last season, and his return to conduct the composer’s Second has been eagerly anticipated. Increasingly the London Symphony Orchestra is distinguishing itself as a strong performer of Mahler – Sir Simon Rattle is conducting Mahler 9 and 10 later this season – and Bychkov led them in an interpretation of the 'Resurrection' Symphony of dramatic fervour.

Semyon Bychkov
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Second broke ground for both Mahler and the symphony as a form, the work with which Mahler signalled himself as a composer of epically-scaled and almost revelatory works. It was the piece which kicked his career up several gears; comparisons to Beethoven’s Ninth are not without merit. Bychkov is known as a highly capable conductor of opera and he brought that sense of operatic scale and intensity to his interpretation of the symphony. Angry snarls from cellos and double basses ached with pain, a dark howl of sorrow, of complex tone and character. The first potential pitfall of the ‘funeral march’ movement is a tendency for it to be dragged out, for melancholy to delay pace. Bychkov’s rigid sense of urgency impelled the movement while offering clear definition. The lighter string playing too was superbly done, the tremolos almost horripilating with anxiety. The inevitable contrast between thematic light and dark was not laboured, but carefully displayed.

Mahler wrote a five-minute pause between the first and second movements which Bychkov followed; for contemplation in theory and late admissions in practice. A mellow and fragrant evocation of the Ländler was thoughtfully drawn by Bychkov, the pastoral air and sense of bloom a striking contrast with the tone of the first movement, before the caustic third movement (a little too quick for personal taste).

Above all though, defining the evening was the performance of the two soloists and the chorus. All gave a sense of total commitment to the text, inhabiting a range of emotions that varied from subdued sorrow to unrestrained ecstasy. Anna Larsson’s pale-toned mezzo-soprano floated out of the orchestra, diction crystal clear and full of meaning. Larsson is known for her Mahler and the emphases she gave to each syllable were most enjoyable to hear. Christiane Karg was a fine counterpart, her textured soprano a plush vehicle that again benefited from clear and thoughtful diction. The London Symphony Chorus came across well, the text clear and the meaning thunderously brought to life.

Bychkov’s control in the final movement was particularly noticeable, balancing considerable orchestral forces against the chorus as well as off-stage brass to the point where no element was brought to the fore at the expense of another. Individual detail was present, from the range of percussion to the more nuanced moments from the strings. Woodwind playing in the last movement was crisp and flowing, its moments of stillness a brief respite before the aural barrage of resurrection. Bychkov maintained a grip on the piece throughout, the music never veering away in focus. A triumphant account which deserved the enthusiastic reception it was given from the orchestra.