Pairing Shostakovich’s terse First Cello Concerto with Strauss’ expansive Alpine Symphony sounds a bit like the musical equivalent of brushing your teeth and then drinking orange juice. The concerto is nearly deconstructed in nature, defying conventions of form. Strauss’ final tonal poem, on the other hand, pushes late romanticism to its absolute limits. Decadent lines stretch into dissonance and deftly resolve into Heimatsfilm-style kitsch in the blink of an eye; a tonal sleight of hand that is quintessentially Strauss. This weekend, the Vienna Philharmonic under Semyon Bychkov brought these two disparate works together, and while not perhaps the most intuitive programming, it felt strangely comfortable.

Semyon Bychkov © Musacchio Ianniello
Semyon Bychkov
© Musacchio Ianniello

Then again, Bychkov’s conducting always feels like coming home to me; the calm solidity of his movements, his grounded gesture and unhurried demeanour seem comfortable and familiar. Though this may in part be linked to our overlapping biographies, it is certainly also indicative of the trust he now seems effortlessly granted by musicians the world over. Bychkov emigrated from Russia to the USA after a brief Vienna stopover in his early twenties. He made a name for himself – after completing his studies at the Mannes School of Music – as conductor in residence in my home town, Grand Rapids Michigan, and then in Buffalo, New York, by American standards just down the road from my Alma Mater, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. The Bychkov era in both places is still a much-discussed and well-remembered; a formative period in the classical music scenes of two mid-sized, Midwestern cities. That a Russian-born refugee would come to be so key to the musical life half a world away speaks to that fact that music connects, transcending questions of heritage, belief, or language.

All this is a metaphor for the musical arch of this program. For all their inherent differences, both Shostakovich and Strauss were both actively defining and responding to their unique social and musical surroundings in these compositions. The Alpine Symphony revels in the decadence of late-romanticism to the point of straining the bounds of traditional tonality, while Shostakovich actively rejects formal norms, literally carving his own initials into his musical landscape. Both compositions, in addition, feature moments of exquisite melancholy and folk elements like Shostakovich’s Yiddish melodies in the second movement of the Concerto or Strauss’ raucous hunting horns in “Der Anstieg”.

Gautier Capuçon © Gregory Batardon
Gautier Capuçon
© Gregory Batardon

Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat major opens without orchestral preamble, soloist and scantly-scored orchestra grinding together around derivatives of Shostakovich’s namesake D-S (E flat)-C-H (B) motif. From the get-go, the melodic movement is all edges, no curves, and the soloist is put through some devilishly thankless paces. French cellist Gautier Capuçon felt a bit reserved in the first movement, but then again Sunday morning is not an organic time of day to throw down straight out of the gate. He warmed up through the melancholy second movement, exhibiting seamless legato and the ability to feather his phrases with finesse and subtlety; the duet with the horn to open and the closing section featuring artificial harmonics in pairing with the celesta were particularly memorable. The third movement is, defiantly, an extended cello cadenza which nakedly displayed Capuçon’s effortless left-hand pizzicato and brilliant scale-work. By the final movement, a jumble of thematic fragments, melodies and rhythmic movement, it felt like he was more ready to fly than the orchestra. It was exciting and impressive enough, however, for the audience to call Capuçon back repeatedly until he acquiesced with an adorable encore: a cello transcription by Gregor Piatigorsky of Sergei Prokofiev's March from the Op.65 Music for Children.

Strauss’ Alpine Symphony needs little introduction, and it is a piece designed to be heard live and in all its massive glory in halls like the Musikverein. The golden busts ringing the hall mirror the endless arch of brass gleaming at the back of the orchestra, and when the sun comes out in “Sonnenaufgang”, changing tonalities from dark B minor into brilliant A major, it is a sonorous experience like none other. The Philharmoniker offered us lush sound, brilliant solo work and a sparkling palette of colours throughout; the crystalline Glockenspiel and harps of “Am Wasserfall” made the shimmering water nearly tangible, and I am fairly sure at least a few members of the audience caught a chill through the sustained wind and plashing rain of “Gewitter und Sturm”.

Not that anyone in the audience minded a bit of rough weather; the applause was loud, gracious and extended.