The Semyon Sessions

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24th October 2013

Semyon Bychkov on Rachmaninov

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Rachmaninov was one of Semyon Bychkov’s idols from childhood. ;I played his piano music, I read everything I could find on him, including his letters. It was an obsession. And then I found myself at the Leningrad Conservatory, the youngest of all the conductors, and the other students were looking at me as if I was a baby brother. And they told me, very nicely, that one day I would grow out of my love of Rachmaninov. I could never understand why I would want to!

So I know that some people look at his music with condescension. I find it amusing. We forget the names of the critics, while his music continues to be performed and loverachmaninovd by millions. Are they less important than a few ‘experts’?

For me the Symphonic Dances are a work of astonishing complexity and existentialism. This is a Rachmaninov of austerity, a Rachmaninov of laconic expression, a Rachmaninov who hasn’t lost any of the earlier lushness, but he presents it now in a way that resembles his own piano playing: inevitable in unfolding the musical line, but never rigid; steely rhythmical foundation, yet often unexpected direction of the phrase; desire to reveal the deepest reaches of his heart, combined with fear to appear banal and sentimental…

I also love the Second Symphony, which of course is a very different Rachmaninov, a young man with absolutely crazy talent. The orchestration is extraordinary: everything is overblown, yet I don’t care, because I think a man of that age is supposed to overdo things. It would be a pity to see someone so young acting old and wise.

He never disconnected himself from the tradition from which he came, meaning, essentially, Tchaikovsky. He was born in 1873. Let’s face it, by the time he was 40, aesthetically speaking, he was viewed as a dinosaur. It’s not a nice feeling.

And then comes the break, moving from Russia to the USA. He has to start his life again in almost every sense. Even financially, from zero. He did not compose for many years, starting again in the late Thirties. The usual explanation given is the pain of separation from his homeland. It is probably partly true, but can’t be the whole truth. What is more obvious is that it was difficult for him to belong to his time.

Among his contemporaries he counted as a pianist, conductor and a popular composer of virtuoso piano music. The language of his musical expression had evolved considerably in The Bells, by which time he had turned 40. Yet the worlds of The Rite of Spring or Schönberg were not his. It would take him at least 20 years before his last masterpieces could again be conceived and born. I think this was the real reason for his silence as a composer, besides the demands of his career as a pianist.

Yet when he did write, he was absolutely clear how he wanted music to be, regardless of what anyone else was doing. I’m full of admiration for that, because it takes a lot of courage.’

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Listen to Semyon Bychkov conduct Rachmaninov The Bells and Symphonic Dances:

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“It takes a Russian soul to best understand [The Bells’] very particular melancholy and Semyon Bychkov worked wonders at freeing up both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus […] When the Russian populace sounded the alarum bells of the third movement those chromatic implorations hurled us into the thick of a Boris Godunov crowd scene. It was a suitably earnest din. But the quiet elusiveness of the score was there, too: the humming chorus of the opening tableau, born of nostalgia but conveying only sorrow; the aching anticipation of the bride-to-be, silvery soprano Viktoria Yastrebova tempering rapture with viola-tinged apprehension; and David Wilson-Johnson looking back with regret as Bychkov found a deep and abiding solace in Rachmaninov’s wonderful postlude. “
[BBC Symphony Orchestra – Rachmaninov The Bells Op. 35]
The Independent, March 2011

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