Festival Music review: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bychkov, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, four stars

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Festival Music

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bychkov

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

AS the BBC’s Scottish Symphony Orchestra was giving a concert to celebrate the 60th birthday of conductor Martyn Brabbins at the Albert Hall in London, the house band of the Proms travelled to the Edinburgh Festival with a programme that would sit very comfortably anywhere.

In the hands of Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov, Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony were glorious celebrations of the lighter side to composers whose reputation is for very serious, even gloomy music. Without diminishing a note of the performance of it, this was always enjoyable music, from its first note to the last.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein, Russian born but US educated in Boston and New York, is already well-known to Scottish audiences, but he will have made more friends this week with a performance of the concerto that was a model of lightning-fingered articulacy. Bychkov took the opening movement very briskly indeed, and the SO strings were superb in the Andante, lush, certainly, but always precise, while crisp playing from the winds were Gerstein’s perfect partner in the finale. The soloist’s encore was a quite startling speedy, highly individual, reading of a Chopin waltz.

Bychkov brought the lightest of touches to the Mahler as well, but one in which every element was clear. From the sleigh bells to the ensemble of the low strings, there was almost a “young person’s guide to the orchestra” feel to this performance, and that was its strength. With fine soloists across the wind section, principal horn Nicholas Korth was, of course, the busiest, with a lovely clear tone, although the solo contributions of orchestra leader Igor Yuzefovich sat perhaps a little low in the mix. That might also have been said of the final movement song by soprano Christine Gansch, although the almost girlish manner in which she sang it was arguably exactly what the composer specified.

It was the way time seemed to hang in the air during the later bars of the third movement that was the heart of this performance, however. When there was a blessed pause before the applause after harpist Manon Morris’s resonant last notes, it was built on respect for the symphony’s most spiritual music.

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