LA Phil scales the heights of Alpine Symphony

By Truman C. Wang

One interesting aspect of concert-going, apart from seeing a favorite artist, is trying to make sense of the concert program of works that are often wildly different but somehow were seen fit to appear side-by-side on the same program. 

Such was the program for November 1 that pitted the perennial favorite Violin Concerto of Felix Mendelssohn with that rarest of rocks, figuratively – the Alpine Symphony of Richard Strauss.   Not that one ever gets tired of hearing the evergreen, cheerful Mendelssohn concerto, nor does one immediately think of the Alpine Symphony when the name Richard Strauss or tone poem comes to mind.  So, what is the method to this programming madness, a rational mind wants to know?  As it turns out, it could be all a deliberate choice by conductor SemyonBychkov to put his own individual stamp on the two works.

For the commonplace E-minor Violin Concerto of Mendelssohn, maestro Bychkov handpicked a uncommonly gifted French violinist Renaud Capuçon.  Together, they gave a memorably brisk and lyrical reading of the popular concerto.  Wistful, romantic angst gave way to gentle midsummer flights of fancy and soaring lyrical lines.  Under Bychkov’s magical wand, the three movements melted organically into one unbroken whole.  The andante, taken at a faster-than-usual brisk walk tempo, was notable for Mr. Capuçon’s superbly lyrical playing and radiant tones, comparable to a great opera singer operating his/her instrument. 

Bychkov also did not dawdle in the Alpine mountain trails of Richard Strauss’ final tone poem.  For this musical exercise in extreme outdoor sports, I actually timed his ascend on a stop watch.  Bychkov raced to the mountain top nearly 2 minutes ahead of his recorded competitions, but took his time with the descend well into nightfall and the dreadful thunderstorm.  Bychkov’s often-frenetic style recalled that of his Russian compatriot Valerie Gergiev, but showed a lot more finesse and polish in execution.  In the brilliant sections of the Waterfall and the Storm, one could hear clearly the ravishing lyrical lines inside a thick and tumultuous orchestral texture.

The “Alpine” is the Mt. Everest of tone poems.  It may not be performed often, but when it is, it’s a life-enhancing event such as this tour-de-force performance by the LA Phil and maestro Bychkov.