old world, new horizons
Semyon Bychkov’s first European engagements pre-date by several years his directorship of the Orchestre de Paris, which lasted from 1989 to 1998. By the mid-Eighties he had already established contacts with many important European orchestras and opera houses, and had begun recording for Philips (initially with the Berlin Philharmonic).
“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 went to the Orchestre de Paris, I had never felt any special connection with 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’.”
In 1997, Bychkov became chief conductor of WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, a post he still holds. “Cologne has been one of the most gratifying creative experiences for me, in practically every way I can think of. After nearly 10 years this must mean that we are not bored with each other, and that we all feel we are progressing and fulfilled in what we are doing. Anything other than that is a horrible life for a musician!
“In Cologne there has always been a very strong tradition for contemporary music, yet at the time I arrived they only knew the classical/romantic repertoire in what I laughingly call ‘a molto espressivo way’, as a traditional German orchestra would. But there has been a change of generation since, and an assimilation of the variety of aesthetics, which we expect a symphony orchestra to have today when interpreting early and classical repertoire.
“The other part of the process has been our operatic projects, and subsequent recordings of Daphne and Elektra, with Lohengrin coming up and eventually Tristan. This has brought the orchestra a flexibility that would simply not be there but for contact with the operatic tradition, which I think every symphony orchestra must have. Just as any opera orchestra needs to play symphonic music.”