Eastern promise

Rick Jones meets a Russian conductor who has set the classical world alight.

Semyon Bychkov
Barbican Hall, London EC2

Once, as an impecunious student, the Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov sneaked into a Karajan concert in Moscow through a toilet window to avoid buying a ticket. Unfortunately, it was the Ladies' and the screams alerted the police, who arrested him. Although he missed the concert, the experience neither stifled his enthusiasm nor halted his progress, and he has risen to be one of the great conductors of our time. His recording of Wagner's Lohengrin with the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne has just been named BBC Music magazine's record of the year.

Bychkov arrived at the Barbican in the conventional manner on 28 March to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra. A frisson of anticipation filled the foyer as premature news of his award infused the gossip. The players stood as he took the stage to open the entertainment with Dvorák's Carnival Overture, a tricky number, as even the best orchestra in the world can sound like a provincial town band if the funfair percussionists get above themselves. In fact, they were as light as Bychkov's left hand, which wafted weightlessly over the orchestra, conferring blessings on the individual sections. Each glowed in response. The cymbalist feathered a touch that fizzed like the chemistry of a kiss just before the lovers' slow section.

A Steinway rose through the floor with an ugly, piercing sound and a flashing, orange light like that of a refuse lorry. Bychkov's compatriot, the hot young pianist Denis Matsuev, winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition a decade ago, hunched over the keys to continue the overture's ribald ambience in Shostakovich's cartoonish Piano Concerto No 2.

“The second movement - where did that come from?" Bychkov had asked me the previous evening, as he took to task those who labelled Shostakovich one-dimensional. "It could be Rachmaninov!" And so it was, as the conductor described with his arm the smooth, romantic arch of the andante while Matsuev's hands picked out the amorous, dreamy theme over a single horn note, held with a tightrope walker's steady focus. Matsuev melted into the capering finale, grimacing a silent growl as he pinged out starkly the lopsided, seven-in-a-bar rhythm over comic, strumming strings. Bych­kov beamed his approval and, unprogrammed, Matsuev played a magical Lyadov prelude as a lap of honour.

The emotional meat was Brahms's Symphony No 4. Here, Bychkov showed his greatness - his deep concentration and ability to maintain intensity on a Wagnerian timescale, his extraordinary skill in isolating individual beauties without destroying the magnificence of the whole. In the first movement, he favour-ed a sighing, long-short-short-short motif that burned and swelled each time his conjuring hand summoned it from the ensemble.

Even in the unforgiving acoustics of the Barbican Hall, he inspired the most beautiful tone. The intertwining, slow-movement horns in particular produced sounds of captivating radiance. The searching echoes of this solemn andante reached into the heart and will not be easily forgotten. The scherzo bounced like a giant laughing, the excitable triangle ringing like the bell on his hat. The finale assumed a portentous tread as the mighty ostinato set forth. Bychkov stood square on the podium, bringing on the concluding chords with all the affirmative certainty that the 19th century knew.

“It's hard to talk about this work without using banalities," Bychkov had said as he turned to his BlackBerry where, for research, he had secreted a letter written by Brahms on the subject of the work's melancholy and loneliness. "Especially loneliness," he emphasised. "It is this sense of being alone, of being an individual, that I feel most strongly here. I try to impart this to the players. If each does not feel that they have the personal space and isolation to express themselves in the orchestra, then they are wasting their lives."

Bychkov will be a familiar figure in London over the next few months. The loose talk in the foyer mentioned the Proms. And he brings Wagner's Lohengrin follow-up, Tannhäuser, to Covent Garden in December. Students - try the toilet windows.

Semyon Bychkov's "Wagner: Lohengrin" is out now on Profil (£39.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice