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Monday, October 15, 2012

Concert Review: Mountains Come Out of the Sky (and they stand there)

Semyon Bychkov conducts the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Your mountain guide: conductor Semyon Bychkov led the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
Image © RAI.
This weekend, the biggest story in the New York classical music scene remained the (impending) return of music director James Levine to conducting duties at the Metropolitan Opera. However, on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, it was the turn of another conductor to lead the MET Orchestra in the first of its subscription concerts this season.

Semyon Bychkov is a name familiar to opera goers and CD collectors, a talented Russian who has never quite seized the imagination of the general public. Currently in the middle of a run of Verdi's Otello at the opera house, Mr. Bychkov chose a sensible program for his first concert outing with the Met players: Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser overture and five Wesendonck Lieder followed by Richard Strauss' awe-inspiring Ein Alpensinfonie.

The result was an exceptional outing for both orchestra and conductor, with firm brass, a lush, pliant tone in the strings and a wealth of audible, finely balanced detail coming from the woodwinds. Maybe it was the good news about Mr. Levine. Maybe it was the choice of repertory.  Either way this seemed a particularly inspired afternoon for players and conductor, who all seemed somewhat relieved to be out of the orchestra pit.


The concert opened with the complete "Dresden" overture to Tannhäuser, Wagner's ultra-romantic story of a singing German knight, caught between the sensuous arms of the goddess Venus and the noble pursuit of a career in music. Sonorous horn and bassoon melodies established the familiar trudge of the Pilgrim's Chorus, which rose to a mighty climax. This gave way to a briskly played Bacchanal, with the depravity of Venus' underground realm rendered in bright orchestral colors. In the final combination of these two sound-worlds, Mr. Bychkov achieved a fine balance, bringing the "pilgrims" back and concluding with a thunderous "A-men."

Following their flight from Dresden in 1849, the Wagners were guests of Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck at their Zurich villa. Wagner repaid his host by falling madly in love with Mathilde, going so far as to set five of her poems as lieder. (While the composer set four of the songs for piano, the fifth, Traume was conceived for orchestra. This concert used a later, authorized setting of the songs by composer Felix Mottl.) The exact details of Richard's relationship with Frau Wesendonck are matters for speculation. What matters is that these songs breathe with the same hot-house atmosphere that inspired Tristan und Isolde.

The MET Orchestra was joined by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, a late substitute for indisposed soprano Eva Marie Westbroek. Ms. DeYoung brought a rich, pliant tone to this song cycle, moving from the unearthly dreams of Der Engel to the lush harmonies of Im Treibhaus and Traume, music that was later incorporated into Tristan. Ms. DeYoung and Mr. Bychkov captured the heady intensity of emotion and romance that imbues each of these songs, soaring through Wagner's complex, chromatic style that seems to grow and evolve as the cycle progresses.

Ein Alpensinfonie ("An Alpine Symphony") is Strauss' last tone-poem, an hour long excursion up and down a Bavarian alp than can be a particularly dangerous form of exercise for the conductor and the 150-piece orchestra complete with a dozen offstage horns. Mr. Bychkov proved himself an able mountaineer from the very first bars, when he made the opening, amorphous bass chords a fertile ground for the work's main leitmotifs. When the main theme sprung into life with a roll of timpani and a flourish of cymbals, the thrilling climb up the mountain had begun. When the offstage horns (depicting a hunting party) came in both on cue and perfectly balanced, it pointed the way to a thrilling journey ahead.

The "symphony" is divided into twenty-two continuous sections. Mr. Bychkov maintained upward momentum toward the work's central climax, the achievement of the summit and a small, stuttering oboe solo, a total perspective for the listener against the majesty of Strauss' aural landscape. From there, it was on to the tricky second half, a pell-mell ride back down the mountain pursued by a thunderstorm of brass, wind and percussion. The MET Orchestra's experience playing Strauss' operas in the theater served to maintain the narrative drive, led smartly by the conductor with barely a glance at the massive score. As dusk fell and the closing bass chords resounded, the journey was over. For once, this mountain climb was totally worth the effort.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.