At almost the same time that Semyon Bychkov became chief conductor in Cologne, he was appointed chief conductor of the Dresden Semperoper. ‘It was frequently pointed out that one was ultra-traditional, the other ultra-modern. I always said that was fantastic for me – it was as if I was able to live in the 19th century and the end of the 20th century. Well, the ones from the 20th century – Cologne – didn’t mind me saying that, but the ones I was referring to as ‘from the 19th century’ felt really uneasy about it. I never meant it to sound as if in Dresden they were dinosaurs!
Of course, the Semperoper is the house of Wagner and Strauss. It gives a certain frisson to be reminded that Wagner was your predecessor, however removed. It was incredibly touching to conduct Strauss in the very house where the majority of his operas were premiered. We played a new production of Der Rosenkavalier from the original parts but without the cuts bitterly objected to by Strauss.’
Bychkov acknowledges that the weight of tradition in such an environment can be restrictive. ‘Everybody agrees that tradition should not be a mindless repetition of bad habits accumulated over generations. But the difference between talking about it and living it can be enormous.’
Founded post-war as a radio orchestra, the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln is the essence of a forward-looking institution. ‘The conditions in which we worked were quite extraordinary. We always had microphones, and most of the time when I conducted we had cameras. The greatest teacher you can ever have is the microphone. If you don’t like what you hear, you can’t blame somebody else. And what you hear in playback is quite different from what you hear while performing.’