Semyon Bychkov’s first European engagements pre-date his directorship of the Orchestre de Paris by several years (1989-1998). By the mid-Eighties he had already established relationships with many European orchestras and opera houses, and made his first recording for Philips with the Berlin Philharmoniker.
‘It was essential for me to make music in Europe,’ he says. ‘What a musician tries to do is to penetrate the spirit of the work of music. That spirit is born in particular circumstances, in a particular place, at a particular time, from a particular person. You have to be physically present, and somehow breathe the air in which that music was born.
When I arrived at the Orchestre de Paris, I had never felt any special connection to French music. But the artistic encounter coincided with changes in my private life, meeting [the pianist] Marielle Labèque, who became my wife, and becoming part of a French family, so this brought another opportunity to get to know ‘the French streets’.’
Nearly ten years later, in 1997, Semyon Bychkov became chief conductor of WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln. ‘Cologne was one of the most gratifying creative experiences for me, in practically every way I can think of. In Cologne there was always a very strong tradition for contemporary music, yet when I arrived they only knew the classical/romantic repertoire in what I laughingly call ‘a molto espressivo way’, as a traditional German orchestra would. Since then, there has been a change of generation and an assimilation of aesthetics, which we have come to expect of a symphony orchestra today when interpreting early and classical repertoire.
The other part of the process was our operatic projects, and subsequent recordings of Daphne, Elektra, and Lohengrin. This brought the orchestra a flexibility that would simply not exist but for contact with the operatic tradition. I think every symphony orchestra should perform opera, just as every opera orchestra needs to play symphonic music.’