When the totality of existence is up for grabs, as it is in Mahler’s Third Symphony, we should not be surprised if all, or even a substantial part of it, proves elusive. The sheer loftiness of its ambitions, and the hoped-for marriage of musical integrity to emotional catharsis, is just very, very hard to snare in performance. So it proved in this exceptionally well prepared and beautifully executed rendition, uniting London’s most muscular Mahler orchestra with a conductor steeped in the composer’s language.
Like Valery Gergiev, the London Symphony Orchestra’s principal conductor, Semyon Bychkov is Petersburg-trained, but his approach to Mahler could not be more different. Gergiev, who conducted a cycle of the nine symphonies during the composer’s recent double-anniversary, is all speed and spontaneity. Bychkov emphasises patience, spaciousness, control. Ideally one would want a meeting halfway. With his deeper understanding of Mahler tradition, Bychkov is a more clear-sighted guide to what the music is about, but the very strengths of his viewpoint – his technical mastery, his sense of balance and pulse – turned out to be a weakness, because the performance, though far from dry or analytical, never really let go.
Even in the finale, which Bychkov drew from the most rapt and tender string threnody towards a conclusion of emphatic majesty, came across as slightly undercooked. This is music that demands to have something wrung out of it. The fact that Bychkov didn’t succeed suggests not that his vision is flawed – far from it, as each movement was wonderfully sustained – but that he and the LSO are still getting acquainted, and the mutual trust necessary for a great performance is not yet established.
The building blocks are there. The manifold themes and cross-currents of the gargantuan opening movement were immaculately laid out – and ennobled by principal trumpet Philip Cobb. The minuet, decorated with tasteful rubato, sounded molto espressivo. The scherzo had light and air, and Christianne Stotijn brought dignified focus to the “Midnight Song”. If Bychkov can loosen up and the LSO regain its swagger, all will be well.