spanning the centuries
At almost the same time that Semyon Bychkov became chief conductor in Cologne, he was appointed chief conductor of the Dresden Semperoper, a post he held until 2002. “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 frisson to think that Wagner was your predecessor, however removed. It was incredibly touching to conduct Strauss where the majority of his operas received their premieres. It was from the original parts that we played the new production of Rosenkavalier, 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.
WDR Cologne, however, founded post-war as a radio orchestra, is the essence of a forward-looking institution. “The conditions in which we work are quite extraordinary. We always have microphones. Most of the time when I conduct there will be 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 a playback is quite different from what you hear while performing.”