Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Bychkov
The Anvil, Basingstoke
5 April 2014
When Ludwig van Beethoven died, in 1827, 20,000 people lined the streets of Vienna to watch his funeral procession pass. Among them was the 30 year old Franz Schubert, an ardent admirer of his older colleague, but when he himself passed away, a year later, his death was little marked beyond his own circle of friends and family. Beethoven’s fame was immediate and unprecedented; Schubert’s reputation grew slowly over many decades, thanks in part to the rediscovery of his epic final symphony, subtitled the ‘Great’, which the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and eminent Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov placed alongside Beethoven’s Seventh for this Anvil performance.
The vast scale and difficulty of Schubert’s ‘Great’ Symphony (sometimes dubiously known as the Ninth) baffled those who saw the score in the first years after it was composed. Today, however, it’s now a central part of the repertoire and the OAE proved how totally modern orchestras are able to manage its hour-long duration. Bychkov chose his tempos carefully, making sure to sustain the piece’s remarkable, unbroken momentum, and the orchestra responded with beautifully refined and tireless playing that balanced their customary concern for historically-informed performance with richness of sound not always associated with period-instrument ensembles. So many of Schubert’s late masterpieces speak to us with a profound expressive power that seems barely believable from such a young man, and this symphony is no expectation – this is never truer than in the infinitely touching central section of the third movement, rendered with melting tenderness by orchestra and conductor.
Bychkov’s steadiness and certainty – such virtues in the Schubert – proved less well suited to Beethoven’s feisty Seventh Symphony, dubbed “the apotheosis of the dance” by Richard Wagner. Much of this music revolves obsessively around dance-infused rhythms and motifs, needing an excitable performance to truly bring it to life. Perhaps Bychkov hoped to retreat from the crazed power that can inhabit this piece and invest it with greater nobility, but in putting off the energetic vigour until the finale he missed the riotous unpredictability that courses through this music. He wanted for nothing from the orchestra, but the impression was of an approach better suited to one composer than the other.