Two Mainstream Brahms Performances, plus Bychkov Documentary
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 11/30/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Semyon Bychkov, from an American perspective, seemed to be a meteor that fizzled. He came to the US early on, got his first music directorship at the Grand Rapids Symphony, soon moved to the much more important Buffalo Philharmonic, did a lot of guest-conducting around the US and then seemed to disappear. What happened, though, is that although he had become an American citizen, he decided to return to Europe for more seasoning and has since made a large career conducting almost exclusively in Europe. He has been, since 1997, the Chief Conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester in Cologne, a very fine orchestra which he conducts on this DVD of performances of the first two Brahms symphonies, recorded in concert in 2002 and 2004. [A sidenote: he is the brother of a rising conductor, Jakov Kreizberg, who took their mother's birth name in order to avoid confusion about two conductors named Bychkov.]
The two performances here are very nicely done. They are primarily mainstream approaches, very richly played by the excellent Cologne orchestra, although there are some noticeable personal touches in both performances. For instance, the Un poco sostenuto beginning of the First Symphony's first movement is anything but sostenuto, and indeed the tempo slows down to a more usual pace when the timpani strokes end at the first entrance of the winds and their descending fifths, such an important element of Brahms's motivic structure. Aside from that the transitional passages of the symphony are nicely judged. The Adagio (Mvt. III) is more emotional than some conductors make it, and the Finale builds seamlessly to the entrance of the 'big tune' and beyond. A very satisfying performance.
The Second Symphony, expansive where the First is dramatic, is given a relaxed, genial, generally gemtlich performance by Bychkov and his band. One has the sense that Brahms is, like Beethoven in his Sixth, walking through the woods and fields, but unlike the Beethoven this symphony is a very concentrated, tightly integrated whole. Bychkov recognizes this and one comes away from this performance wholly satisfied. The opening bars of the Adagio, with the cello theme and bassoons in contrary motion, is surely one of Brahms's most fecund creations -- it provides the material for the whole movement, including that fugal passage begun by the solo horn. This is the art that conceals art for the listener is ravished by this movement without necessarily knowing anything at all about its marvelous construction. In the exciting Finale (Allegro con spirito) Brahms brings in just a hint of his beloved Gypsy music. Bychkov conducts it in exhilarating fashion. The WDR horns, trumpets and trombones are particularly fine here.
The bonus feature on this DVD is a fascinating biography of Bychkov featuring long interview segments with the conductor. It opens to pictures of Bychkov as a small child back in St. Petersburg, and in the background we hear a hauntingly beautiful boy soprano accompanied by a cappella boy's choir, singing a melancholy Russian folk song. Only later are we told that the boy soprano is Bychkov. The adult Bychkov not only tells (in virtually unaccented English) the outline of his story, but also talks about music, and particularly Brahms, and its meaning for him. A pleasant hour-long feature.
TT: 214 mins; Sound: PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1; Subtitles: German, French, English, Spanish; Region: 0