When the Günter Wand Conducting Chair at the BBC Symphony Orchestra was specially created for Semyon Bychkov in 2012, hopes were high that he would be able to stamp his personality on an orchestra which on a good night can hold its own internationally but which all too often demonstrates variable quality. On the basis of their latest collaboration at the Barbican, a lot of work remains to be done.

Paul Watkins © Paul Marc Mitchell
Paul Watkins
© Paul Marc Mitchell
The first work, Detlev Glanert’s Brahms-Fantasie, commissioned by the BBC in 2011 and premiered in Glasgow almost four years ago, has had to wait a while for its London première. One wonders why. It is a very approachable work, offering a personal homage to another composer from the same city, and in its long-breathed and well-crafted lyricism it reveals Glanert’s considerable experience in writing for the opera-house. Its sub-title, ‘heliogravure’ for orchestra, is a synonym for ‘photogravure’, a technique perfected during the course of the 19th century in which an image produced from a photographic negative is transferred to a metal plate and etched in. To all intents and purposes an original piece is thereby adapted and transformed but yet remains recognisably the same. It is scored for the kind of orchestra Brahms used for his First Symphony and teems with quotations. Glanert, who previously orchestrated Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, refers to his intriguing composition as “a picture puzzle” and “music about music”. In this performance the ear was beguiled with references to his Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op.52 and, in the arresting opening with timpani and cello pizzicati, to echoes of the C minor Symphony. Bychkov, who has conducted a number of Glanert’s works elsewhere, shaped the individual episodes sympathetically with committed orchestral playing.

If Glanert’s homage to Brahms was all about a recreation in modern terms, the other work in the first half would have been considered lost forever – like so many other compositions by Joseph Haydn – had a set of manuscript parts not turned up quite unexpectedly in Prague in 1961. Thus serendipidity allowed the world to become reacquainted with the musical popping candy of Haydn’s C major Cello Concerto. This is a work which should go snap, crackle, pop in the right hands, infused as it is with an infectious sense of wit and joie de vivre. The soloist was Paul Watkins, who for seven years in the 1990s was himself a distinguished principal in the orchestra that was accompanying him. At the start of the first movement there was already an audible mismatch between the slight sharpness in the upper strings and the burnished, mahogany-like sheen from the solo instrument. Bychkov had reduced the size of the orchestra to chamber-like proportions – just two double-basses – but even so there was sometimes a lack of aeration in the textures, with the oboes and horns (that remain silent in the central Adagio) never really making their presence felt. The inward quality that Watkins sought and achieved in the middle movement provided a keen contrast to the buzz of the outer movements. If at times one might have wished for evidence of a stronger musical personality – the finale is characterised, after all, by a devil-may-care abandon – Watkins was never guilty of any stylistic lapses. He then offered as an encore the Sarabande movement from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 3 in C major.

Overlong periods of gestation can easily set up a volcanic head of steam. Brahms’ First Symphony was all of fourteen years in the making, by which time he was well into his forties. Bychkov’s first downbeat made clear that all the composer’s ideas were desperate to burst forth in a torrent of energy. Not much in the way of tragic import or an impending heroic struggle that others have found in these opening pages, this was junior racing round the playroom with his skates on, with no time either for the exposition repeat. This very bracing quality was balanced to some extent by a tendency to slow down as soon as the dynamic level dropped below mf. However, whether you regard Brahms as a classicist or a romantic, you risk reducing his longest symphonic work to a palette of purely primary colours if you fail to heed the example of its greatest past interpreters. First, the inner voices, especially among the strings, need to be given their full due. Second, any anxiety about lingering unnecessarily and allowing wind solos to unfold properly and string lines to soar is misplaced. These two qualities are what make Brahms recognisably different from, say, Beethoven. The final movement compensated somewhat for earlier shortcomings, with a suitably mysterious opening but then slightly overblown coda, but there is still much room for improvement, not least in the string department.

***11