Review: Semyon Bychkov solid on Bruckner's 8th Symphony

In the 1980s, when he was in his early 30s, Russian emigré Semyon Bychkov burst onto the scene in a blaze of hype -- recording regularly for Philips, touring with Herbert von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic.  He is now 60, no longer as loudly touted, yet thinking big in terms of repertoire.

Back in 2011, Bychkov and the Vienna Philharmonic blew through Costa Mesa with Mahler’s Symphony No. 6; his current guest-conducting schedule is dominated by such epic-scaled blockbusters as Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, Britten’s “War Requiem” and Richard Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony.” Falling right into that pattern, Bychkov’s agenda with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night contained only one piece, a big one: Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8.

For this mighty, 82-minute-long, alternately thunderous and hushed cathedral of a piece to begin to make its effect, a conductor should have a tight grip on the structures of the four movements, not letting things drift into fragments in search of a whole. Bychkov had that working for him.  He did not indulge in idiosyncratic mannerisms. There was some beautiful shaping of individual phrases that fit within the architecture, and he was adept at patiently building climaxes. He kept things moving along, even allowing for a slightly slow tempo in the scherzo (perhaps a reminder of what Karajan did in this piece).

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However, the brasses tended to cross the line from blazing to blaring in certain climaxes; the effect was shattering to the ear, not uplifting, in this acoustically live hall. Also, more elusively but crucially, the spiritual element couldn’t be felt.  Bychkov could lay out the Bruckner Eighth for all to discover, yet he couldn’t quite cast a spell. 

It was a solid performance, no doubt -- and on a certain level, a satisfying performance that certainly excited a good deal of the audience. Yet it wasn’t quite a transporting one.


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