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11th September 2019

This was Semyon Bychkov’s second Prom of the 2019 season. The first was with the BBCSO on August 11; Bychkov occupies the Günter Wand Conducting Chair with that orchestra. Here, he led the Czech Philharmonic, of which he is Chief Conductor and Music Director, succeeding the late and much-missed Jiří Bělohlávek (1946-2017). The Czech Philharmonic has a distinguished history, dating back to 1896.

The tradition of playing Czech works by Czech orchestras is a strong one, and represented here by a commanding Overture and three dances from Smetana’s Bartered Bride.  A miraculous combination of full string sound and accuracy from the downbeat characterised Bychkov’s Overture, taken fast but at a speed that allowed everything to speak joyously. The bucolic element was there, strongly, in the bassoon ‘drone’ below piping woodwind.  Peppering the opera’s three acts are the three dances heard here, an active Polka, a full-sunshine Furiant and that encore-favourite, the ‘Dance of the Comedians’, with its perfectly accurate trumpets and startling timpani shots; but what really shone through was Bychkov’s command, perfectly exemplified by some impeccably graded diminuendos. One could hardly ask for more – except, perhaps, for a recording by Bychkov of the whole opera?

In the process of unleashing herself upon the World, the incredible Elena Stikhina was the soloist in the Tchaikovsky. Moscow Conservatory trained, she has already sung Norma in Boston, Tosca, Senta (Der fliegende Holländer), Leonora (Trovatore) and Adriana Lecouvreur in such operatic centres as the Met, Berlin State Opera and the Dresden Semperoper. Her Senta has been covered by Seen and Heard International, while her Leonora Trovatore was covered at Finnish National Opera. This, amazingly, was not only her debut at the Proms but also in the UK.

Stikhina’s voice has it all: radiance, palpable youth, open-throated generosity and a creamy lower register. And all of this was required for Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, which she not only sang but fully lived out for us on stage, each word clear. The drama was believable throughout – her cry of ‘What’s the matter with me?’ or the sheer emotive power of her imaginings as she waits for Onegin. In a Proms booklet interview, Stikhina says she sang the Letter Scene for her Diploma at Moscow. The whole was made all the more memorable because of the orchestral contribution, Bychkov encouraging the strings to play at their tenderest. The oboe solos (Jana Brožková) and the creamy horn contributions were particularly notable.

There was no encore (just as there was no encore after the Shostakovich); but we were left with an aching wish to hear more of Stikhina, that’s for sure. Bychkov has of course recorded a notable Onegin for Philips; but even more pertinent is the recently issued box of Tchaikovsky Symphonies, the three Piano Concertos (with Kirill Gerstein), Romeo and JulietFrancesca da Rimini and the Serenade for Strings, all with the Czech Philharmonic, a vital purchase for Tchaikovsky lovers. One fondly remembers, also, a BBC/Barbican performance of Tchaikovsky pieces, including the Third Piano Concerto.

Bychkov’s recorded Shostakovich symphonies with the WDR Cologne Orchestra (on Avie) have been generally well received. The Eighth in that series was recorded in 2001 and was given a mixed reception by my colleague Don Satz on MusicWeb-International; at the Proms, he has conducted the Tenth (1991), the Eleventh (2009) and the Seventh (2015).

This present performance of the Eighth was, by some way, the greatest Shostakovich I have heard from Bychkov, live or on record. Beautifully paced, the opening of the long first movement was perfectly together (discipline is a key element to Bychkov’s conducting), the string sound blanched. A later phantasmagorical moment was testament to Bychkov’s attention to detail and the placement of that detail within the whole; more, Bychkov got to the heart of Shostakovich’s repetition processes. In these processes, Bychkov allows us to feel that Shostakovich takes the mechanism almost to breaking point, its core obsessiveness key to its generation of tension. And how the orchestral sections play together within themselves: three trumpets, perfectly balanced, shone.

The succeeding Allegretto, full of life with its superb piccolo contribution and the Allegro non troppo with its manic trombones led to the aching Largo, with its magnificent solo strings and superb control from the tutti string section. Bychkov held the silence after the perfectly controlled end to perfection – no easy matter with an audience usually suffused with noisy electronica and replete with bronchial ailments. In a conversation reproduced elsewhere, the Prague Philharmonic’s CEO David Mareček and General Manager Robert Hanc told me of similar phenomena – a Mahler 2 that hang in the air at its close, for example.

One of Bychkov’s traits is to find profundity in music via a penetration to the music’s core. What this means in practice is that extreme speeds are not necessary for emotional saturation. We heard that here in Shostakovich’s Eighth, and one can find it on disc in that new Tchaikovsky set with the finale of the ‘Pathétique’ – all of the depth of Bernstein’s later DG recording but none of the stasis.

This, it would appear, is a key appointment for both Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic; Bychkov’s rapport with the players is beyond doubt.

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11th September 2019


Mark Thomas

Is it too early to coin the phrase “the Bychkov effect”? These are busy times for the restless Semyon Bychkov, who, as well as starting his second season as Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, has just completed his multi-season Tchaikovsky Project and is now commencing a new Mahler recording cycle. But this concert, a repeat of last week’s season opener in Prague, was all about the power of the live performance, something that even the most accomplished recording engineer cannot fully achieve. With striking contrasts between the two halves, Bychkov brought us the spice of life, unabashed romance and the bitterness of human survival, all through Czech and Russian eyes. In short, this concert packed quite a punch.

Despite having a more international sound these days, it was pleasing to hear that the Czech Philharmonic has still retained its characteristic warmth, lyricism and rawness, displayed here with exceptional prowess, and that it has also kept steadfastly close to its roots. Opening with Smetana, Bychkov galloped merrily through the Overture and Three Dances from The Bartered Bride with more than a little gusto, the orchestra displaying gritty attack while Bychkov created nice contrasts between the rustic skipping, articulate and precisely played, and the smooth legatos, with particularly fine solos from the singing trumpets. At once, you could see that the players were as animated as the conductor – always a good sign.

With the concert-masters alternating between pieces, the orchestra was then joined by young Russian soprano, Elena Stikhina, making her UK debut in Tatyana’s Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. This was a highly impressive and absorbing performance, with the versatility and dramatic thrust of Stikhina’s well-rounded and luminous lirico-spinto exuding both strength and vulnerability, and with superb clarity of diction and fine control across all registers. Above all, Stikhina was communicative and expressive in telling her story, with Bychkov and the orchestra supporting the narrative sensitively with warm sweeping strings and melting oboe and horn solos.

After the interval, there was a shock to the system. Written in 1943, Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony is the composer’s most vivid and personal expression of “the terrible tragedy of the war”. Bychkov produced a powerful and compelling performance, with intense and fully committed playing by the orchestra, overwhelming at times not only in its sonic impact but also its emotional charge. Bleak undercurrents were maintained from the very beginning, and the expansive first movement climaxed in terrifying ways, shrill and chilling, and with the players straining at the very extremes of their instruments.

Bychkov continued to blaze Shostakovich’s trail of horror and hope with a sardonic bite to the incessant march-like Scherzo of the second movement, the piquant piccolo deserving a special mention, and a relentless acidic aggression to the third movement, building crescendo after crescendo as though stretching sanity to its limits. He was masterful in carefully shaping individual phrases within Shostakovich’s extended melodic lines, something that he produced to extraordinary effect in the desolate emptiness of the fourth movement, the composer’s profound reflection on the physical and emotional cost, before finally, after much searching, transitioning to C major for the final movement. This darkness-to-light journey, however, was bittersweet, and Bychkov revealed the ambiguity of the optimism in the final pages with ominously still strings and a haunting, isolated flute solo. This work is not really about triumph, but simply survival, and it is hard-hitting. From Bychkov’s long pause at the end, this clearly meant something.

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11th September 2019

The Arts Desk

Gavin Dixon

Semyon Bychkov was a surprising choice to take over the Czech Philharmonic last year, a conductor with few obvious connections to Czech music. But on the strength of this visit to the Proms, they make a good team. Bychkov communicates fluently with the players, conveying power and passion, and detail too, but without any overt theatrics at the podium.

The Czech Philharmonic has a burnished tone, well projected and filling the Albert Hall, but more with colour than with weight. There is an elegant and lyrical flow to everything the strings play, which Bychkov is able to harness and shape. The woodwinds are sometimes reedy but always have plenty of character. And the brass can sound nasal, but deliver punch when required. But the defining virtue of the Czech Philharmonic sound is delicacy, a kind of fragility or reticence that adds an extra expressive dimension, and proves as valuable in Shostakovich as it does in Smetana.

Excerpts from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride opened the concert. The Overture is often taken at breakneck speed, but Bychkov held back, allowing the momentum to build from within each of the string sections. Hard sticks on the timpani brought decisive focus to the proceedings, and colourful woodwind flourishes completed the effect. The Three Dances that followed are more often heard as encores, and here served as a reminder that the Last Night of the Proms is just a few days away.

Soprano Elena Stikhina is new to the London stage, but she is a name to watch. Moscow trained, and a prize-winner at several opera competitions in the last five years, she now appears to be pursuing a career in the heavyweight roles, particularly Wagner and Verdi. So Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin might seem a curious choice for her UK debut. That Wagnerian power sits uneasily with the character’s youth and innocence, but with disbelief duly suspended, this was a stunning performance. Stikhina has an ideal combination of clarity and richness to her tone, alto-like in the lower register, but continuing it with ease right up to the top. Her vibrato is slight, and carefully applied for expressive effect – a superlative technique in every respect. Bychkov and the orchestra proved ideal partners, the conductor leaning into the ebb and flow of the impassioned music, and the orchestra responding with suitably lyrical and expressive lines. A special mention too for oboe soloist Jana Brožková, whose light and complex tone defined the orchestral sound here.

Bychkov has a well-earned reputation as a Shostakovich specialist, and the programme informed us that he has previously conducted Symphonies 10, 11 and 7 at the Proms. This performance of the Eighth was ample demonstration of that mastery. As with the Smetana, he rarely seemed to push the music, instead letting the power build from within the orchestral textures. So, in the first movement, our attention was directed towards the blithe elegance of the long violin melody, allowing Bychkov to conjure the dark forces in the lower strings then gradually overwhelm the orchestra with these dark harmonies, a powerful effect.

The inner movements were a showcase the many fine soloist of the woodwind section, particularly the cor anglais. The violas held their own at the start of the third movement, with plenty of weight, but agility too. Bychkov’s mastery of Shostakovich’s musical rhetoric was clear from the way he introduced the belated turn to the major in the last movement. There was nothing triumphant about it, more wearied acceptance, the players delivering the brighter harmonies, but again with their trademark burnished tone, all the details clearly illuminated within the orchestral textures, a clarity that only highlighted the ambiguity and reticence of the composer’s message.


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11th September 2019

The Times

Neil Fisher

Earlier in the evening, in Prom 69, we heard the last in what has been a hard-hitting trio of Shostakovich symphonies this season when Semyon Bychkov conducted the Eighth with the Czech Philharmonic. The Czechs have a particularly spicy, theatrical woodwind section and their vehement contributions to the jolting second movement and the remorseless savagery of the third — here is the Soviet war machine on the march, but the composer is hardly worshipful towards it — were especially pungent.

The rest of the programme contrasted classic Russian opera (the soprano Elena Stikhina affecting, if a tad unvaried in Tatyana’s Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin) with classic Czech opera — orchestral bonbons from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. This orchestra normally treads lighter in the exhilarating overture, but for the three jolly interludes that followed, Bychkov found his dancing shoes and we were happily whirled along.

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