Royal Concertgebouw Leads Bychkov In Mahler 5th

Carnegie Hall, New York: November 30, 2016, 8pm

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov (cond.)

Detlev Glanert is a contemporary composer who takes himself very seriously. His Theatrum bestiarum, subtitled “Songs and Dances for Large Orchestra” supposedly explores the juxtaposition of man and beast, expresses primal terror, and has something to do with Caligula. The piece plays continuously for about twenty-five minutes, and consists of some trashy but enjoyable orchestral effects without causes. The rhythmic parts were fun; at other times Glanert hints at tunes that never manage to arrive. His style is basically atonal, but not threateningly so, and therein lies the problem. Terrifying this was not: thickly scored and obvious, rather. The use of the organ about halfway through sounded especially silly. Still, placed all by itself on the first half of the program, it made an attractive enough novelty, and it was played really, really well. The composer was present to receive the audience’s sincere applause. It’s nice to know that a New York premiere (the piece was composed in 2005) still counts for something.

Bychkov’s Mahler Fifth got better as it progressed, which means that it ended very well indeed. For some reason, every time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has come to New York and done this symphony, I’ve seen them–three times in all, under Haitink, Chailly, and now Bychkov. Believe it or not, this was by far the best of the batch. Haitink was dull. Years later under Chailly the orchestra was plainly exhausted from touring. Here Bychkov had the good sense, mostly, to let them deliver a symphony that they surely knew better than he did.

The orchestra sounded gorgeous: strings, with ten double basses, warm and rich; those fabled woodwinds still have the goods, and the brass had nary a bobble. The horn soloist in the scherzo was magnificent. Only the cymbal player, a real wimp, needed some encouragement from Bychkov. He didn’t get it. Neither did the trumpet during the first movement’s wild outburst, and why was the last note of the march played softly–opposite to what Mahler demands? However well executed, the scherzo also could have been wilder, but that directive needed to come from the podium too, and again, it didn’t.

Things picked up considerably from there, however. Bychkov took the famous Adagietto swiftly, in keeping with modern thinking about the music as essentially an extended, lyrical song. It worked beautifully, with the harp perfectly balanced, and he eased into a finale full of high spirits. Certainly the orchestra never sounded tired on this outing. It’s hard to get bad Mahler from Amsterdam: they know it too well, and if Bychkov’s wasn’t the most characterful interpretation, he still put on a good show. The audience went crazy at the end, and I can certainly understand why.

David Hurwitz