It hardly seems possible that Schubert's genial Symphony No. 2 was written a couple of years later than Beethoven's Olympian Symphony No 7. The former clearly looks back to the 18th century while the latter looks forward to the 19th and beyond. But then Schubert was just starting his brief career while Beethoven was well along in his. The younger composer already had, in any case, a good grasp of how to put his own stamp on the form he had inherited from Haydn and Mozart. The charmingly lyrical thematic material and sympathetic wind passages, for example, are all his own.
Watching Mr. Bychkov conduct both of these Viennese masterpieces without a score made it that much easier to appreciate the way he interacted with the orchestra. There was an obvious rapport and two-way communication with the players that appears to be a hallmark of all this season's guest conductors. Mr. Bychkov's style seems to favor precision over large gestures, even in a cheerfully aggressive work like the Shostakovich concerto, and the approach served the music well.
The product of a short-lived thaw in artistic repression the USSR in 1957, the concerto is an unambiguously (and uncharacteristically) happy work. Written for the composer's son Maxim and first performed by him on his 19h birthday, the piece zips through thee short movements in around 20 minutes, concluding with a slightly satirical nod to the Hanon finger exercises that Maxim undoubtedly knew well from his years at the Moscow Conservatory. It is, in short, an irresistible work.
Mr. Gerstein can probably do this sort of thing in his sleep, so it's hardly surprising that he and Mr. Bychkov seemed to be having as much fun performing the concerto as we did hearing it. Their reading had a snap and precision that was a joy to behold, and got an appropriately enthusiastic response from the audience.
Mr. Bychkov returns to the podium next weekend for the far more challenging Symphony No. 6 of Mahler; I look forward to the results. For information on that and other St. Louis Symphony events, call 314-534-1700 or visit slso.org.