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13th September 2019

Scherzo

Rafael Ortega Basagoiti

The programme for the 69th concert of this year’s Proms was the Overture and Three Dances from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride followed by the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with the second part devoted to Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony . The Czech Philharmonic was on splendid form and the relationship with its new Music Director appeared to work like a charm. The acoustics of Albert Hall are well known to be treacherous, but Bychkov and the Orchestra worked wonders with orchestral balance and clarity, without losing an iota of nerve and enthusiasm.

The Smetana selection had nerve and enthusiasm in abundance. In the Overture, the flexible articulation in the strings was perfect with a beautiful edge to the wood. The subsequent polka was magnificent with an effective and elegant rubato, a contagious rhythmic impulse for the Furiant and a thrilling final dance. Smetana’s works were contagious and came across with joyful enthusiasm. If it was difficult to get the balance in the acoustics for Smetana, it was even more so for the scene with Tatiana (known as the Letter Scene ) from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. I had not heard the Russian soprano Elena Stikhina before. I was impressed by her beautiful, warm voice, which projected well throughout her journey, and drew expressively on the unique mixture of lyricism and drama in the scene. She was splendidly accompanied by Bychkov and the Czech musicians, with a special mention for the strings and the oboe, clarinet and horn soloists.

However, the focus of the evening fell inevitably on the devastating score that is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8. Composed at the height of the Nazi invasion of Russia, the composer declared to Volkov in his  controversial book Testimony that “the war brought much new pain and destruction, but I have not forgotten the terrible years before the war; that’s what all my symphonies are about since the fourth, including the seventh and the eighth. ” And, reaffirming what he said before, “… and then all the misery was attributed to the war, as if only during the war people had been tortured and killed.” The eighth is, of course, a sombre, deeply tragic score and torn in the pain of the long first movement. Even though the climax is expected, when it comes it is overwhelming, even more so when it is performed with the intensity which Bychkov drew from the Czech Philharmonic.

The subsequent English horn solo (a sensational instrumentalist, by the way) was creepy and devastating. The Allegretto was bitterly incisive, with outstanding playing from the winds, especially the piccolo, bassoon and clarinet solos. Bychkov’s conducting of the third movement was extraordinary, with the magnificent violas sounding oppressive and obsessive with a graduated dynamic which the famous Russian maestro built to a tremendous climax moving to an ominous and bitter sadness, and the hopelessness of  the Largo (the tuba here was also outstanding). There are those who see hope in recent times, particularly in the transition to the major key. Personally, I believe that it is fading, and behind the long notes of the flute and the strings is a drowned and sadly resigned anguish hidden behind a veil of false calm. Perhaps, deep down, Shostakovich is expressing in that peculiar way of his, a message that seems to tell us “beware, we are coming out of one horror, but another will remain…”. Throughout this long, intense and devastating journey, Bychkov and his magnificent orchestra took us on an experience as perfectly constructed in the music as it was intense and devastating to the emotions. After the pauses between the first and second movements, the public had applauded.  Following the final Allegretto, Bychkov was concentrated and there was a sepulchral silence in the Albert Hall. Only, many seconds later, when he dropped his arms, came the ovation that justly rewarded his formidable interpretation.

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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

Bachtrack

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

Lark

Susan Elkin

Few things are musically more uplifting than hearing a fine foreign orchestra playing its own national heritage. The Czech Philharmonic plays with an exceptionally incisive string sound and the technique with which they played Smetana’s The Bartered Bride overture and three dances was stunning: all those delicious rhythms caught with glittering, percussive precision particularly in the third dance. Semyon Bychkov, who beats time quite simply and has his orchestra traditionally seated, certainly knows how to make Czech music sing. It made a delightful concert opener.

It was an inspired programming idea then to change the mood completely with the intensity of the letter scene from Eugene Onegin in the concerto slot. The orchestra played with well balanced operatic excitement from the first note and Russian soprano, Elena Stikhina sang this gloriously melodic scene with rich clarity and plenty of warmth and passion.

After the interval the mood became much more sombre. Shostokovitch’s 65 minute eighth symphony is bleak and emotionally raw and it’s not surprising that it doesn’t get as many outings as say, the fifth or the ninth. I can’t think of any other symphony which has a 30 minute first movement either but it was evocatively played here particularly when it reached the long, plaintive cor anglais solo. I also admired, among other strengths, the quality of the trumpet solo in the third movement and some vibrant viola work along with the strange gurgling flute sound the score requires. For me, though, the hero of the evening was the piccolo player who more than earned his money with prominent – and beautifully played work – in each of the three pieces.

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