The Washington Performing Arts celebrates its 50th anniversary this year – cause for celebration indeed – and its opening concert showcased one of the world’s finest orchestras, the Royal Concertgebouw, under the baton of Semyon Bychkov. Much was anticipated, and they did not disappoint. Both works on tonight’s programme demanded force majeure, and the assemblage of instrumentalists on stage was particularly impressive – ten double basses alone.

Semyon Bychkov © Sheila Rock
Semyon Bychkov
© Sheila Rock

From the jarring 25-note chord which shivers the nerves at the opening of Detlev Glanert’s Theatrum Bestiarum (A Theatrical Bestiary) to its off-beat Shostakovich-like end, the performance was captivating. It is a work full of malice, from glowering bass-lines, to stifled screams from the upper strings, the whole speaks of darkness and terror. Particularly striking were the lurching sounds, a sort of nauseating auditory swoop. Glanert has said that his intention is to evoke the dark animality – the ferocious wildness – of human-beings, and in this, it must be said, he succeeds. What the Concertgebouw brought out was the fecundity of the work’s expressions. When this orchestra goes at full-throttle, there is no mistake about it. For instance, those double basses simply leathered the sound. The sudden entry of the organ, cleaving through the crashing climaxes of the first part, was a moment of great power... such that perhaps only an organ can command. Was I alone in linking it to a sort of Dies irae moment – the instrument that speaks of Christian eschatology like no other? But for all the vehemence, rigour was maintained throughout. In other hands, the very wildness could have become sloppy, an excuse for dispersion. Reined in precisely by Bychkov, the work remained coherent.

There are a myriad of things, no doubt, which distinguish a good Mahler performance from a great Mahler performance, but one feature surely has to be that in a great reading, the centre will hold. A work of 70 minutes risks becoming a sprawling, fissiparous thing. To keep it coherent, unitary even, now that is an achievement. There was no doubting the Royal Concertgebouw’s ability to do just that. Each movement had its own character and yet, each formed part of a whole interpretative arc that was faithful to Mahler’s intent and convincing to a present-day audience. One is never very far away from the dance in Mahler, there are shreds and hints of it throughout, and the Concertgebouw understands this. We hear it even in that lurching funeral march in the first movement, so that by the time we are in the midst of the celebrated scherzo, where dance is explicitly invoked, it is a familiar language. There was plenty of liberty taken here, pleasingly so, expressive quickening and slackening of pace. As the music is, so too the history: Mahler’s Vienna was living on borrowed time in the twilight of the Austro-Habsburg world.

The most striking moment of musical chemistry occurred during the pizzicato passage in the Scherzo. They might have been Jewish folk musicians somewhere back in the fin de siècle, for the intimate simplicity of it. The detail was exquisitely observed, poignantly informal. Once again the orchestra’s vehemence was a terrifying thing. A shout-out for the ten double bases – how often does one even notice them? – but these had very communicative orchestral personalities. The cellos produced lovely, lyrical sounds, bringing out the mellow beauties of the score. “Each note in it is profoundly alive,” Mahler wrote about his Fifth, and it takes individual instruments, as well as the collective whole to bring it to life. Each and all of them did just that. 

*****