Thursday, June 23, 2022

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

The Symphony as the World; Mahler throwing every formative musical influence at his chain-of-being six-movement (with a seventh held over for Symphony 4) panorama – Mahler’s Third comes with a big spiritual and emotional baggage allowance, and resistance is futile.

Yet, nagging away during this performance – conducted by Semyon Bychkov with the combined forces of the Academy Symphony Orchestra and ladies of the Chorus, the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Wake-Edwards – surfaced a memory of the stern funeral sentence, “Remember, man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return”, except that here you might replace ‘dust’ with ‘consciousness’. The goal of Mahler’s Third is the achievement of full human/divine consciousness, and here was that great seer Bychkov reminding us how fragile consciousness is, and how easily it can slump back into the sullen indifference of Nature.

The work is a huge ask for any orchestra, and the young musicians from the Royal Academy rose to the occasion in considerable style, with the first and last movements in particular delivering the point of Mahler’s drama as a symphonic structure rather than a programme of character pieces each with its own title (which Mahler later abandoned).

Bychkov’s style on the podium asserts rather than imposes, and even in the faster music he favours air and phrase, and trusts detail and nuance to his musicians, to which these players responded in kind. Perhaps he was more emphatic in matters of speed, accent and rhythm than he would be with, say, his Czech Philharmonic, but there was no suggestion of the sort of micro-management that tells you more about a conductor than it does about the music. The only thing I missed was a fuller string sound. Based on an impressive wall of ten basses, you couldn’t fault them for on-the-ball attack and character – the violin solos from Iona McDonald were echt-Viennese – but, at its quietest, the sound could have done with more bloom.

The brass was magnificent – with good contributions from Isobel Daws (trombone) and James Nash (trumpet) along with a magical off-stage posthorn from Holly Clark. The woodwind had a fine, idiomatic penetration, with not too much overdone, and wailing bird-cries from oboe and cor anglais in the ‘O Mensch’ movement.

Bychkov had pitted savagery against summer vigour and growth in a thrilling account of the ‘Summer marches in’ first movement, but, oddly, didn’t follow this up in a generally understated third movement (‘What the animals of the forest tell me’) in which the eruptive shock of the reappearance of Pan/Nature didn’t quite have the sort of deep impact that could only be resolved by Wake-Edwards’s superbly imposing, dark “O Mensch! Gib Acht!”, which settled beautifully into the lovely choral innocence of the fifth movement.

The strings came into their own in the transparent glow at the start of the Finale, which Bychkov nudged forward with a burgeoning sense of purpose. The three big crises unfolded a Brucknerian pattern of retreat, regroup and advance as the sound gathered depth and warmth, and you couldn’t escape the closing bars’ glorious inevitability.

This Mahler Three, marking the Royal Academy’s bicentennial celebrations, had been thoroughly rehearsed, but you were more aware of how exploratory and fresh it was.

Column post #4,000: RELEASED TODAY, April 8: Semyon Bychkov & the Czech Philharmonic, with Chen Reiss, record Mahler Four for Pentatone.


Well-worth catching,, available for eleven months.