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Positive Feedback ISSUE 9
october/november 2003


Richard Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, Op.40; Metamorphosen, WDR Symphony Orchestra, Köln/Semyon
Bychkov (Avie AV 0017).

In the late Eighties, Philips launched Semyon Bychkov in a series of recordings, guest-conducting orchestras of the caliber of the Berlin Philharmonic. The performances, which included some stunning Shostakovich, were impressive, but the press and public response was lukewarm, and Philips presumably allowed his contract to lapse, ultimately settling on the Kirov’s Valery Gergiev as a more marketable Russian.

It’s good to have Bychkov back, and in repertoire that plays to his strengths. His brisk, motile treatment of Heldenleben mitigates the pretension of the composer’s self-absorbed programme, though the conductor’s tendency to shave time off long notes is an odd lapse of musicianship. The piece affords plenty of opportunities for Bychkov’s skills as a colorist to come into play. In the "Critics" section, he shapes the nattering wind fragments into a broad arc, ebbing and flowing without sacrificing biting articulation, and infuses the answering phrases with just enough rhetorical breadth. There’s a nice touch later on, when this music returns as a distant portent, momentarily disturbing the enveloping warmth of the "Companion" section. Similarly, Bychkov doesn’t bang out the "Battle forte, but balances "distant" brass and close-up strings to weave a varied texture. The "Works of Peace" breathes expansively without losing momentum. The big 6/8 theme toward the end is stiffly phrased, but builds in a long-breathed surge to the close.

The rich, resonant opening bass note presages a concentration on beautiful sound in this performance, and the Cologne orchestra does not disappoint, playing with a warm, luscious tone. The players hold together in a well-balanced, full-bodied ensemble, despite the conductor’s occasional beat jumping. Kyoko Shikata deftly tosses off the violin figurations in the "Companion" section with a small-scaled but vibrant tone. The woodwinds voice the "Works of Peace" reminiscences with delicacy and point. The recording is outstanding. A firm, focused bass supports the sonority solidly, and wind instruments register clearly in proper perspective. Note the depth around the tubas in their parallel fifths.

Metamorphosen benefits from a similar clarity and direct address. The opening tempo sits rather on the andante side of the spectrum, but it accommodates the triplets in an easy flow. The string soloists are expressive, though the reined-in solo violin could blossom more. A drawback is that, as the emotional temperature rises, the sonority becomes a bit loud and overbearing. The moving figurations are clear and accurate, but it all sounds on top of you. Nor does the abrupt return to the slower music register quite starkly enough. Still, this rich-toned, well-organized performance is enjoyable. If Bychkov’s performances don’t quite sweep to the top of the listings, they nonetheless offer a distinctive and attractive supplement to your Strauss library.

Stephen Francis Vasta