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10th April 2019

Classical Source

Peter Reed

This Shostakovich concert veered between the very slight and the immensely portentous. These three works were all written in 1957. Stalin had died in 1953; there was the possibility of a less-malign Soviet authoritarianism hanging in the air; and this was blown away by the brutal suppression of Hungary in 1956.

You could look in vain, though, for coded messages in the Second Piano Concerto, which the composer wrote for his son Maxim. There are pages of Saint-Saëns-style brilliance, an irrepressible and spiky wit, a slow movement of dreamy tenderness, and a marvellous send-up of those finger-bending Hanon keyboard exercises the young Maxim may well have inflicted on his parents. Alexei Volodin was completely in the spirit of the Concerto’s sparkling invention, which showed the effortless precision and elegance of his fingerwork brilliantly. Semyon Bychkov and the BBCSO partnered him with equal finesse, yielding a well-judged touch of Chekhovian languor in the Andante.

The Variations on a Theme by Glinka were like a scheduled encore. Seven other Soviet composers also contributed Variations on the minimalist scrap from Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, a scrap that Volodin endowed with an ironic sense of importance. The third Variation is like a picture Mussorgsky might have hung in his exhibition, and Volodin, with characteristic astuteness, neatly exaggerated its preposterous grandeur. He is a marvellous artist, who peels away layers of meaning and expression in everything he plays, hooked to a fabulously discreet virtuosity.

Symphony 11 is in the Russian tradition of realising an epic slice of national history intended to speak to an equally epic Russian present. The first two movements graphically represent the Tsar’s savage solution to the people’s uprising of 1905, and the last two, rather like a big Passion setting, provide sympathetic commentary and expansion. Bychkov’s approach rather blurred the distinction, mainly down to his restless flow and momentum. He took just under an hour (Rostropovich, for instance, takes almost an hour and a quarter, and the result, particularly in the opening movements, is monumental) and he animated its drama into long stretches of cinematic verismo.

The BBCSO played superbly and idiomatically – the strings’ opening was like non-reflective grey ice, Antoine Bedewi’s implacable timpani role was all you needed to give Shostakovich’s sprawling canvas a sense of cohesion, and the plangent song-based solos – including trumpet, cor anglais and bassoon – became central to the revolutionary action with graphic directness. The violas’ withdrawal into the third movement ushered in the composer’s subversive ambiguity and pain, expertly steered by Bychkov, who made way for the Symphony’s annihilating climaxes in the Finale. There was just enough of a decay to the bells’ last word to suggest one of Shostakovich’s quizzical and destabilising question marks before applause rushed in.

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5th April 2019


Pedro J. Lapeña Rey

Furthermore, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov, current Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic, the occasion had the feeling of an event…  Both OCNE and Maestro Bychkov were not only up to the task but at times it seemed like we were listening to the Czech Philharmonic itself. The Orchestra sounded more Central European than ever with a large palette of colours that enabled Maestro Bychkov to play with different densities…  Bychkov unlocked the music, let it flow and breathed with it… The audience responded with bravos and applause that lasted for about five minutes. The wait had been worth it.

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4th April 2019


Jan Průša

On Wednesday night, the Czech Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov gradually built the whole symphony [Mahler Symphony No. 9] to the finale, where it revealed the undeniable contemplative effect of the emotional effort.  If the Czech Philharmonic has a tradition of Mahler interpretation then it was revealed to us here.   In an attempt to understand the Ninth Symphony, many listeners and musicologists find it helps to imagine that Mahler is saying goodbye to life through this music. The nature and structure of the music helps, but it would not be Mahler if all the parallels did not have a more complex meaning, preventing us from understanding the symphony so simply. In a good way, this uncertainty was also generated by the Philharmonic under Bychkov. The whole first movement was emotionally tense for example, but as in a misty haze, open-endedly, calm. It was more like an introduction, and without saying goodbye, everything was coming to a conclusion. The complexity of individual instrumental sections never created unnecessary excess. Nor did it in the symbolic second movement, where Bychkov worked with stronger dynamics. And it was slower than usual, as reflected in the clarity of the phrasing and the strength of the bowing.  The third movement was characterized by chaos and dissonance. And again the overall effect was created with much attention to detail, largely created by the emphatic climax at the end of the  Rondo. The centerpiece of the entire work was the finale. In addition to the secure and technically expert conducting, the Philharmonic’s focus and emotional exertion created the main result. The simplicity and effortlessness, the care over individual inner parts and the strength of the outer parts were preserved. The commitment was obvious…  Semyon Bychkov will be one of the creators of the Czech Philharmonic’s “tradition” in the interpretation of Gustav Mahler. The “tradition” takes a line through conductors such as Karel Ančerl, Zdeněk Mácal and Václav Neumann, and additionally can be heard in the soft sounds and colours of the Orchestra, but to talk confidently about the tradition of Mahler’s music interpretation anywhere can only be in the abstract.  One can even draw tradition from the fact that Mahler is not “an outsider” (born in Vysočina) or that one of his symphonies received its world premières in Prague. But that would be to disregard the all-encompassing nature of Mahler’s music, which belongs to the whole of Central Europe from where it came. And Central Europe is as varied, diverse and all-encompassing as Mahler’s music…  Mahler’s Second Symphony under Semyon Bychkov at the start of this season had a mixed response, but the Ninth was brilliant music-making created by a strong emotional connection from all the musicians.  If this continuation is “tradition,” Mahler’s authenticity in Prague is being preserved in the best sense of the word.

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3rd April 2019

April News

The beginning of April sees Semyon Bychkov return to Prague for three performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Czech Philharmonic from 3-5 April. A week later, he returns to London to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra in an all-Shostakovich programme on 10 April. At the end of the month,...

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