Semyon Bychkov and Kirill Gerstein with the SF Symphony in Ravel, Rachmaninoff, and Walton

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William Walton

William Walton

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010
Semyon Bychkov, Conductor
Kirill Gerstein, Piano

Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917)
Rachmaninoff – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43 (1934)
Walton – Symphony No.1 in B-flat minor (1935)

This week’s concerts at Davies Hall marked a welcome return to the podium of Semyon Bychkov, who has become a favorite with San Francisco audiences in recent seasons. Mr. Bychkov has entered the admirable ranks of unattached guest conductors who travel the world conducting only the music they love, and the happy results are palpable. This year, his passion is the Walton First Symphony, and our audience is all the richer for what his advocacy has found in the music.

To begin the evening, Mr. Bychkov conducted a silky, alabaster performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin. Ravel’s music generally does not have a wide emotional range, but nobody does dignified moonlit nostalgia better, and the performance was a beauty. It did not erase memories of Karajan’s iconic recording with L’Orchestre de Paris, nor dim one’s curiosity for what a modern French Orchestra, such as L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, would make of the piece, without an accent so to speak…. But Mr. Bychkov, conducting here without baton, elicited lovely bone-white sonorities and subtle diminuendi with his finger tips, and it would be churlish to ask for more.

Comparisons among Russian-born conductors appear to be inevitable, so here might be the place to mention that Mr. Bychkov favors the rich string sonorities and rounded brass chords that we have come to associate with Valery Gergiev, but without the latter’s tendency to extreme emotion and agogic distortion. Where Mr. Gergiev throws himself into the music in a twitching perspirational fever, Semyon Bychkov stands back like a fencing master, with broad but telling gestures. The image is more apt than one would suppose. Sartorial experimentation on the podium is rife these days, and conductors, like Generals, demand the right to design their own uniforms. Lately, Mr. Bychkov appears before the public in a sleeveless black tunic, as though having just dismounted from his horse and shed his armor.

The first half of the concert brought us the return of pianist Kirill Gerstein to play the Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody. Mr. Gerstein is a tallish fellow with a serious and humble demeanor, and he clearly appreciated the audience’s enthusiastic response to his accuracy and detailed collaboration with the conductor. Some years ago it struck me, though, that the success of Murray Perahia playing Bach had a lot to do with finding exactly which notes to emphasize in quick passagework, so that the harmonic direction is never confusing, and the listener always knows where the music is going. Kirill Gerstein gave what you might call the occasional false clue, suggesting perhaps the lack of either understanding or ultimate control of his passagework. I did not sense, either, that sonority meant very much to Mr. Gerstein. There was no particular beauty of tone in his touch nor sense of mystery, and the famous 18th variation, while effective, was only minimally romantic. Mr. Gerstein is a fine pianist, of course, and Mr. Bychkov brought out deep and rich sounds from the Rachmaninoff, almost making of it a symphonic piece with piano obbligato. Ultimately, though, I would be more intrigued to hear the Rhapsody performed by some of the other pianists who have appeared at Davies Hall in recent seasons. It would remain for the Walton First Symphony, after intermission, to remind us why we listen to music.

Every great symphonic work evokes a world. The musical landscape of Sir William Walton’s First Symphony lies somewhere between an unlikely notion of Hindemith with English weather — and one of Sibelius without snow. Walton’s music seems to well-up through a uniquely English blend of murkiness, fog and steam. It is industrial, rather than folkloric, and through the smoke one always senses the relentless power of locomotion.

At the same time, the Symphony has a human dimension — its important melodies are tiny things for oboe and flute, and though the music does not trade in tragedy or storytelling, it is all about personal mood. This is very different from the mechanized universe of Hindemith’s Symphony in E-Flat composed just a few years later, where factories seem to bestride the earth like heros, and more personal than the elegiac planetary sweep of Sibelius’ Seventh. There is something satisfyingly cinematic about Walton, with his suspenseful Weimar Republic tremolos and snarling muted brasses.

Within these bounds, the most notable character of the Walton First lies in its deep extended pedal sonorities and eruptive brass lines, always cycling lopsidedly like huge engines below the listener’s feet. There is a lot of Sibelius here — but speeded up —  the nervous, knee-tapping quality is pure Walton, and so is the occasional hint of dance floor sensuality. Huge brass trills remind the listener of Stenhammar. One has to work at this, though. One bar of the symphony, and you know who it is.

More importantly perhaps, Walton hits upon a motoric theme at the very beginning of his symphony. It stays permanently in mind, like the first moments of “The Planets” or Beethoven’s Fifth, or the Roussel Third. Hear it once and you perceive immediately its originality.  Lucky is the musician who accomplishes that. It is a form of immortality. And to the composer’s credit, Walton builds a first movement around this reciprocating figure without getting distracted. Its relentless, whiplashed conclusion, as horns punch their way into the major, is possibly the finest moment in the piece — -it sounds like Bruckner gone mad in a textile mill — and conveys a remarkable sense of inevitability.

Indeed, Walton entirely avoids the cow-over-fence stasis that so often cripples British symphonic argument — (think of symphonies by Bax, Moeran, Dyson and others.) In this postwar generation, perhaps only Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir Arthur Bliss learned to combine with equal result the English pastoral sensibility and symphonic forward motion. The Walton First Symphony is a huge work, yet like the greatest works of art — economical — and so it moves.

The performance history of the Walton First has tended to emphasize snap and punch in the brass over beauty and depth of string sonority. Indeed, the now iconic 1967 Andre Previn recording with the London Symphony is essentially a knock-em-dead tour de force, (rendered additionally mysterious over the years by Previn’s subsequent career as an astonishingly low-thyroid, earnest and essentially quite dull conductor.)

It was a revelation, then, to hear Semyon Bychkov approach the Walton First from the standpoint of deep string sonorities and dreamlike tonal beauty, as though it were Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead.” He did not slight the brasses, but they erupted more roundedly and organically than I’ve heard before. I became aware for the first time of the sheer vastness of the sonorities contained in the piece, and it was all to the good. The San Francisco Symphony strings have never sounded fuller, nor Davies Hall seemingly more resonant.

Similarly, in the scherzo, taken fractionally slower than usual, Bychkov found more atmosphere than one expected, at no sacrifice to the tympanic convulsions and various rhythmic tangles. The “Andante con Malinconia” moved richly and smokily and concluded mysteriously. (I note in passing, though, that ending the piece there makes no sense at all, and Walton probably should not have permitted it to be performed as a three movement symphony. Unfortunately the late composition of his finale rendered this necessary for several performances.)

Said finale, quite undeservedly, was looked upon askance when it did arrive. It was thought fuller, more sensual and romantic than the music which had preceded it. As performed by Semyon Bychkov, it was impressively full and majestic indeed, but so had been the earlier movements, and I came away more thoroughly convinced than ever of the work’s unifying greatness. The coda, like several in Walton, is occasionally criticized for having trouble finishing itself off, but Bychkov’s approach was a revelation. After the massive fugue, evenly and strongly conducted like Klemperer at his best, Bychkov drew such weight from the repeated brass exclamations, and so revelled in holding their power, that the repetitions became an essential part of their cumulative effect. Taken a hair more slowly than usual, they mesmerized, and just as the symphony had seemed to set forth within a dream, it concluded with a powerful hypnotic swirl.

This was simply the finest performance of the Walton First Symphony I have ever heard. With the perspective of time it has become increasingly clear that this is universal music and a symphony for the ages. Bravo, Semyon Bychkov! Long live Sir William.

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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