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Beethoven, Shostakovich, Vadim Repin (soloist), West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov (conductor) Philharmonie at the Gasteig, Munich  21.1.2008 (JFL)

Beethoven, Violin Concerto, op.61
Shostakovich, Symphony No.4, op.43

When the “Heldenleben-orchestra” stops at the Philharmonic Hall in Munich, home of the Munich Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann – Straussians of the first order – it is only natural to bring repertoire that isn’t one of the home team’s hallmarks.

Of course Semyon Bychkov and his West German Radio Symphony Orchestra Cologne (WDR SO) are capable of much more than just Richard Strauss’ famous tone poem, the frequent performance of which has resulted in their nickname.

On record Bychkov has recently displayed his mastery of Mahler, Rachmaninov, Brahms, Strauss operas (Elektra, Daphne) on the Avie and Hänssler Profil labels and some may remember when he was one of Philips’ star-conductors in the early 90’s. For Avie, Bychkov has also recorded five of the big Shostakovich symphonies – Nos. 4, 10, 11, 8, and 7 and it was Shostakovich’s powerful, probably under-rated Fourth Symphony that he brought to Munich. It came coupled with the Beethoven Violin Concerto for which they invited along no less a violinist than Vadim Repin. (Somehow, even the arguably greatest active violinist was not draw enough to fill all seats in this Concerto Winderstein organized concert.)

Elegance, feeling, and perfection are a given with Repin’s performances – and his rendition at the Gasteig was no different from that. He plays his Beethoven with brio, confidence, and stateliness. He does not give into the work or surrender to its mysteries - he subdues it with sheer skill and the forcefulness of his musicality. It’s not as infinitely pure as Julia Fischer’s approach, nor with the same stern delicacy, but Repin offers an abundance of moods and hues (if less of the shades here than he is sometimes capable of). There is little that is hushed, ethereal (Fischer), or – at the other end of the interpretive spectrum – bold, aggressively lean, with premeditated freshness (Zehetmair).

Vadim Repin’s is a middle of the road romantic approach – and just about the best in that spectrum. His tone, like a needle through leather – round, strong, steady, reminded more than once of Nathan Milstein, even though Repin professes to “always thinks about Menuhin in terms of this work”. (Apparently Repin had briefly considered the Beethoven/Schneiderhan cadenza from op.61a – the Piano version of the concerto – but opted for the traditional Kreisler-cadenza in performances and recording, after all; a missed opportunity to my ears, but hardly a serious quibble.) The WDR SO matched his excellence step by step with finely honed, well controlled playing.

What followed might have, nay, should have been the highlight of the concert – except that an audience largely in attendance to hear Repin and Beethoven did not seem to agree. Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was done a tremendous service by Bychkov and his orchestra. Right off the bat with maximum aggression, high octane and decibel levels, an incredible energy and from 0 to 60 in two bars.

Bychkov did not slowly wake the beast (like Gergiev who needs 20-some minutes to get the momentum going in his Philips recording) nor did he engage in the ghastly and lean dances of a Barshai (Brilliant Classics). He went for maximum contrast and worked his orchestra as though he stood at the console of a miraculously wondrous cacophonium. He managed to shock some audience members right with the first chord and continued to do so until the end. The ensemble-work of the strings – the first violins primi inter pares – had reference quality. The four flutes and two piccolos that worked their heart out in the first movement were shrill and lovely in being so. The climax of the first movement turned out a thing of thunderous beauty, demented hordes galloping hellwards – without any false sense of sophistication, just raw emotion, coagulated blood, vodka, and gunpowder. The held flute notes after it were all the more unearthly with their high frequency flutters. The ensuing silence around trumpets and timpani more threatening.

Beautiful were the tick-tocks into the false calm of the third movement’s opening – only to proceed to delve deeply into this strange, enervating, beautifully bizarre world that makes the Mahler-influenced first movement seem perfectly normal. Bychkov managed to tighten the music’s thumbscrews anew at every new start after an intermittent lull or faux-lyrical passage.

If someone ever felt compelled to make a film of Gryphons having sex, this would be the soundtrack for it: the shrieks, the brutality, the claws, the exhaustion, the climaxes and the pounding, and the relentlessness are harrowing and were particularly so in this performances. There could not be a more appropriate description of it, even if it risks being clichéd: Bychkov and orchestra were playing the hell out of the finale. But more distressing still, because of all that preceded it,  was the ensuing dreamy delicacy of the ticking-away of the symphony, the final breath and that mourning trumpet that sounded like a death knell ringing over a blood soaked battlefield on a Winter dawn … a comment on a victory everyone knows was a defeat.

No wonder Shostakovich kept the symphony in the drawer until de-Stalinization was under way. It would otherwise not only have been his fourth, but also his last symphony.

Jens F. Laurson

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