The theme that dominates the first movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, written during the wartime siege of Leningrad, starts with a perfectly innocent foot-tapping rhythm and develops into something monstrous. It is a crescendo of orchestration, anchored by an insistent side-drum, comprising brass wails, mechanistic woodwinds, bass drum thumps and shrill, hammering tutti.
Behind the notes lies a horrendously vivid characterisation of 20th-century fascism – whether German or Soviet is open to debate. But unless the conductor knows how to build it patiently towards its nightmarish conclusion, it can sound like music for a banal propaganda film. In my experience, no one has succeeded in revealing its awful majesty as powerfully as Semyon Bychkov did last Thursday with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. From start to finish it was a magisterial interpretation that seemed to grip and inspire every musician on stage as palpably as it did the audience. It had a similar authenticity to the performances given by touring Russian orchestras, and was a good deal more precise than the London Symphony Orchestra’s well-remembered reading under Valery Gergiev.
Bychkov, born and trained in Soviet Leningrad, calibrated the music exactly. The structure unfolded with fabulous clarity, each paragraph dovetailing into the next, so that the sly, ambivalent contrasts Shostakovich built into the piece all added up, while maintaining their capacity to surprise and unsettle. Just as important, Bychkov invested the work’s symphonic edifice with an emotional charge that, in the string threnodies of the slow movement as well as the work’s final peroration, reminded us that this is the testimony of a composer with first-hand experience of totalitarianism: it sounded simultaneously like a wail and a hymn of truth. The Russian-American conductor has never done anything so good in London, an impression confirmed by the BBCSO’s sensitive and supple playing.
The concert began with Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos – another wartime work that could hardly be further from the battlefield. Its appeal lies as much in the visual show it sets up between the two soloists – here Katia and Marielle Labèque – as in the toccata-like busy-ness of the outer movements. Their performance had all the rhythmic flair the piece demands.