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31st January 2020

Return to Vienna

February 2020 sees Maestro Bychkov return to Vienna for performances of Strauss’s Elektra at the Wiener Staatsoper. He is joined by Christne Goerke once again who took up the title role under Bychkov at the 2014 BBC Proms and 2011 production at Madrid’s Teatro Real. Waltraud Meier sings Clytemnestra and...

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17th January 2020


Aleš Bluma

Then Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic showed us a completely different Franz Schubert. Above all, Bychkov used strong transitions, dynamics that stretched from the softest pianissimo (fantastic first violins – how can ten violinists play “ppp” so tenderly that it is barely audible, this is truly masterful!) to the strongest fortissimo; choosing faster tempi, he took the drama away from the cello solo in the Allegro Moderato. Suddenly, the orchestral colours were really fresh. The Orchestra was totally at one with the interpretation. Especially in the second movement, where the themes were passed with precision and the phrasing was brilliant. Both oboist Jana Brožková and clarinettist Jan Mach played their solos very well. It was a completely different Schubert from the one we know. Coarse, unconventional and without melancholy, it raises a wave of exciting emotions…

Contrasting with the Unfinished Symphony, Semyon Bychkov opted for a far more classic interpretation in Rendering. The rhythm was precise (mainly in Berio’s transitions), and the sound was multi-dimensional. Besides the above-mentioned soloists Jana Brožková and Jan Mach, I would like to mention bassoonist Ondřej Roskovec, cellist Josef Špaček and the filigree violin of Olga Šroubková…

Semyon Bychkov knows his Beethoven perfectly. He conducted the symphony (No. 7) by heart and his gestures led the orchestra accurately, indeed he lived Beethoven’s music. And the entire Orchestra lived Beethoven’s music with him. The Orchestra’s joy was almost unbelievable. In the second movement’s Allegro, the clarinets and bassoons together with the strings gave first-rate performances on a par with the finest orchestras in the world. The second movement sounded almost unearthly. As did the winds in the third movement, Presto. It is hard to think of any greater praise. It was a joyous, triumphant and excellent Beethoven. The Czech Philharmonic’s performance was almost unreal. It is becoming increasingly evident that the combination of Bělohlávek’s work over the years and Semyon Bychkov’s current leadership are bearing fruit. The Czech Philharmonic has its place amongst the world’s top orchestras once again.  And, if the musicians continue to play they did in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, they absolutely deserve their place there.

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16th January 2020


Ivan Žáček

The rather traditional programme which centred round two classical works,won the audience over with its thoughtfulness and sophistication. Bychkov’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was the climax of the evening. I am delighted to say that the Czech Philharmonic’s sound is changing gradually from the traditionally smooth and soft tonality for which it has been known  – despite the fact that there have been weaker years when this was not really the case. More distinct colours are beginning to emerge, the overall sound is fresher, and its sound world is more distinct. Have the musicians been inspired by the sounds that we are used to hearing from some of the German, Dutch and Belgium ensembles?  Placing the first violins on the left and the second violins on the right surely also played its part in strengthening the colour palate and giving a feeling of spaciousness…. The sound of the Orchestra reminded me of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Paavo Järvi although without its ambitions of authenticity. No matter the roots of this change, it is definitely positive. The colourful richness of the Czech Philharmonic’s current sound evokes analogies with the visual arts: as if Corot, Monet or Pissaro’s gentle brush strokes were taken over by the tougher hand and palette of Matisse, Kirchner, Beckmann or Kandinsky…

The performance of Rendering was not just a routine one to introduce a piece that was rarely played piece, but was a proper concert performance.  Bychkov presented a well-balanced cocktail of Mediterranean and Schubertian ingredients and served it with style. The southern and northern aspects of the Alps shook hands with great internal harmony.

I said recently that whenever I hear one of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, I get concerned. Based on local Beethoven performance tradition, I have become sceptical about the possibility of enriching Beethoven’s canon and feel that there is nothing that can be meaningfully added to the great performances by Furtwängler, Karajan, Abbado and Haitink. Moreover, it is hard to come anywhere close. This time, my concerns proved unfounded. The performance of the Czech Philharmonic on 15 March showed yet again that the quality of the Orchestra is far ahead of the other Prague orchestras and in recent years the difference appears even greater. I have heard Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in the Rudolfinum far too often but yesterday for the first time I heard it on a level which would stand the test of European criteria. I am not talking about some new-fangled approach but more about the pacing and the temperament of the sound, full of energy and joy from playing music which was truly captivating.

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16th January 2020


David Karlin

Unfinished business: fine Schubert and Beethoven from Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic.

Semyon Bychkov is now in his second season as Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. Judging by the atmosphere in the Rudolfinum last night, it hasn’t taken him long to win a place in the hearts of the both the audience and the orchestra: rarely have I seen a concert in which orchestral players looked so devoted to the man on the podium.

The person who epitomised the happiness in this concert was the mohican-haired cellist Jan Keller, who spent the whole evening casting beaming smiles across at his partner and anyone else who might be looking. But spare a thought for our two bassoonists, who were rocking and rolling to Beethoven’s Seventh, clearly relishing the dance feel of the piece. And that was very much Bychkov’s style in this concert – conducting without a score, choreographing his movements in the direction of whatever mood he felt Beethoven was taking us.

Throughout the evening, you couldn’t fault the Czech Phil on the precision of their togetherness or their balance. That’s crucial in the Beethoven, where the colour is provided by creating a whole series of blends of combinations of others. If one instrument in the blend is a bit too loud or too soft or enters at a slightly different time, the effect is lost: here, we had the delightful surprise every time one of these new “virtual instruments” appeared. All this precision was put into the service following Beethoven’s imagination: pure joy from rising scales in the first movement, a certain genteel elegance in the Allegretto, interlaced with moments of horn-fuelled transcendence. The third movement was a village hop, with the bombast added by trumpets and horns in the trio section. Were the strings not quite perfectly defined at the start the fourth? No matter, as the movement morphed into a full gallop to round off this most optimistic of performances.

The broadly benevolent feel of the evening had started with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Schubert may not have had Beethoven’s connections with Bohemia, but the music suits the Czech style down to a T, most particularly the use of woodwind which evokes the hills and forests much as it does in Dvořák. The Czech Phil’s woodwind section were on blistering form, with the second movement clarinet solo the most notable of many beautifully executed solo lines. The dance rhythms brought to mind another composer and place – Tchaikovsky and Russia. This was a marvellous exposition of Schubert’s lyricism – the only thing one might have wished for being more variation between the restatements of each theme.

The first half was closed by Schubert – but not as we know it, in the shape of Luciano Berio’s Rendering, his composition built out of Schubert’s other unfinished symphony, the D936a in D major. Berio takes the unusual approach of interleaving Schubert’s fragments with passages of his own devising which make no attempt at pastiche: the Schubertian orchestra is augmented by a celesta, whose shimmering timbre is often used to mark Berio’s contributions. It’s a mercurial work, with elements as diverse as Lutheran sounding brass chorale or country dance interspersed with romantic melody, but one that entertained richly, particularly as the series of wonderful woodwind interludes continued.

Bychkov and the Czech Phil seem still to be firmly in honeymoon mode. Long may that continue.

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