Semyon Bychkov may currently be one of the most underrated conductors. Nearly 30 years ago, he made his debut at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. His brief period ended with Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Yet not until returning with utterly convincing renditions of Eine Alpensinfonie and Ein Heldenleben, after a decade and half of absence, did the bond evolve to its current exemplary and noble synergy. Tonight, the majestic conductor enraptured the audience with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances. In another example of a world class voice flatlining due to the Concertgebouw's acoustics, Kristine Opolais failed to convince.

Semyon Bychkov © Musacchio Ianniello
Semyon Bychkov
© Musacchio Ianniello

In Romeo and Juliet, Bychkov created a wonderful sense of cohesion amongst the musicians. Opulence flowed from the orchestra while he kept determinedly slow tempi. An unusually silverlined, rarified texture emanated from the trombones. As Bychkov marked Tchaikovsky’s romance with fluctuating volume, a glowing depth from the strings swelled and contracted: highly resonant and undeniably swooning in its romance.

A Herculean task, rarely does a solo singer with the orchestra conquer the acoustics of the Great Hall. Although Bychkov created an inviting ambience with Tchaikovsky, Opolais’ input could not overcome this aural impediment. Rachmaninov’s “How fair this spot” failed due to her lack of volume. While she struck impressive high notes, her rousing vocals failed to live up to her reputation in the Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin. A very nuanced Bychkov notwithstanding, the orchestra’s proper volume outshone her.

In Tatyana’s moments of questioning, though, Opolais did evoke disarming innocence, this virtue nicely complemented by the orchestra. She has recently completed a tour with the same programme with Andris Nelsons and his BSO, but chemistry between singer and conductor was missing here. 

In Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances Bychkov demonstrated his layering techniques with magnificent dense textures. In the opening movement, with refined musical depth and embattled elegance, Femke Ijlstra, wonderful on the alto saxophone, gracefully provoked and engaged with the fraternity of wind soloists during the Lento passages. With a distinct timbre, she offered resilience in her fragile, melodious phrasing that resulted in unforgettable resonance.

For the middle movement in Tempo di valse, Bychkov initiated a languid, swooning dance full of voluptuous curves. The Russian conductor demonstrated how impressively suspenseful the orchestra can get during slow parts. Subbing as concertmaster, Tjeerd Top showed off his excellence in a devious, nay demonic, violin solo. If you happen to know that scene, imagine the Devil’s ball in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Truly exhilarating!

The symbiosis between Mariss Jansons and the RCO always produced superlative suspense in the slow, quiet, often Mahlerian passages; the former Principal Conductor’s silken suspense always with highly charged momentum. Bychkov accomplishes something similar. With slow and deliberate tempi, he enriched Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov with titanium tension.