The Classical Review Interview
Classical Review, May 2010
As Semyon Bychkov takes his leave of the WDR Symphony Orchestra after nearly a decade and a half, he discusses his final project with the Cologne-based band whose fortunes he has transformed - an award-winning recording of Lohengrin.
“The only reason to do it is because you are in love with it.”
Consummated in a magisterial, newly released recording, Semyon Bychkov’s love affair with Wagner’s mid-period romance Lohengrin took marginally longer to reach fruition than the 34 months devoted to its composition. With its origins in concert performances with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León in Spain and a full production at the Vienna State Opera in 2005, Bychkov went into the studio with the WDR Symphony Orchestra in late 2008 after further concerts in Cologne for a demanding three-week recording session.
The result, released on the still-young German label Profil (launched in 2004 by Günter Hänssler and based in Munich) proves to be, as Mike Ashman notes in his review for this site, “An outstanding release and a top recommendation for the work on disc”. It’s a view others have eagerly concurred with – its latest accolade a Disc of the Year Award from BBC Music magazine – and serves to underline Bychkov’s growing reputation as an opera conductor with the enviable ability to marry finesse and flair in readings of depth, detail and drama.
“And,” the conductor pointedly stresses, “it was not a sight reading; it was performing scene after scene, day after day. There was no going through the motions. We could have released several complete recordings that had the quality one finds on this version.”
Describing the performance that made its way onto disc as “an honest recording”, Bychkov’s Lohengrin is that all too rare exception to the now commonplace rule: a full-length opera recording made in the studio, the kind of event whose demise has long been predicted, an apocalyptic prophesy Bychkov takes obvious delight in correcting.
“When EMI announced its recording of Tristan und Isolde with Plácido Domingo in 2005, they said it was the last time a great opera recording would come out of the studio. I was laughing because Lohengrin was already being planned.”
The live performances in three countries were an essential part of Bychkov’s stratagem.
“You can do perfect singing, perfect playing, perfect notes, all of that, in the studio if you have time and a lot of preparation. But there is something which is irreplaceable: the experience the artists have communicating to each other during the performance in their costumes on the set – the more productions the better. Performing live is the real thing and the challenge of studio recording is to preserve the spirit, the atmosphere, the energy and vibrancy of a live performance while not having an audience. If you’re able to do that, you can have the best of both worlds.”
Key to realising Bychkov’s “lived-in” ideal has been the continuity of artists involved in the recording.
“Some have been with us since Spain, some since Vienna, some since Cologne. Johan Botha [who sings the title role] was part of the whole thing from beginning to end; Petra Lang [Ortrud] was in Spain and Cologne but not Vienna; Falk Struckmann [Telramund] was in Vienna and Cologne but not Spain. It’s a team that has lived through this piece together.”
That shared experience shines through in an assiduously probing and deeply poetic recording informed by what Bychkov describes as the singers’ “profound point of view about their own role and all the other roles as well. This Lohengrin is not about pretty melodies. It’s about the human condition.”
In a telling observation on his own website, Bychkov remarks that “Wagner’s operas are the closest music to Buddhism that I know”. It’s a revealing allusion – one that suggests a refusal to blindly accommodate creed and dogma while returning attention and focus to character and circumstance – and one that Bychkov is more than happy to elaborate upon.
“In Buddhism, dogma is not something which is accepted. Instead, it allows for permanent rebirth and evolution. What is the music of Wagner, Lohengrin in particular, if not permanent rejuvenation, permanent evolution?”
For Bychkov, the crux of Lohengrin lies in the contrariness of “the most villainous of characters often receiving the most noble and beautiful music. How does one deal with that?”
Answers, he adds, were to be found in two places: the score – “Lohengrin is so completely complete. There is nothing in it that I would like to be different, nothing that I would like not to be there, nothing that I think is missing. It’s just absolutely complete” – and the rehearsal room, where Wagner’s characters were unpicked and put back together again with an almost forensic concern for psychological point and purpose.
“Singers have the advantage over actors in that they also have a musical line. If they are sensitive to it, it will lead them to finding the right character.”
But where others might be tempted to deal in absolutes and definites, Bychkov considers one of the principal attractions of Lohengrin to be the contrarieties and paradoxes embodied in Wagner’s music and self-penned libretto. It’s an admiration that earns him both the startling accolade, in Bychkov’s booklet essay for the recording, of being “a poet first and then a composer”, and a flattering comparison to Shakespeare. Wagner, like the great dramatist, Bychkov asserts, “has the capacity to create characters full of contradictions without judging them”.
Undoubtedly the most contrary figure in the opera is the ambitious, scheming and vengeful Ortrud. Seeming to be cut from the same poisonous cloth as Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, the role offers a particularly knotty set of challenges for singer and conductor.
“Everybody knows what Wagner wrote about her: a woman who has never known love and is only interested in politics. But because she has never known love, she suffers. And the moment she suffers, she becomes vulnerable. And the moment she becomes vulnerable, she becomes sympathetic. What we think of her is one thing; what she thinks of herself is something very different. Ortrud is terrible, Elsa is nearly a saint; the one is black, the other is white. But it doesn’t work like that in life. Or in genuine art, and Lohengrin is a genuine work of art. What one thinks of the world is not necessarily the same thing the world thinks of you. Isn’t that Shakespearean?”
Ortrud’s vacillating, love-struck husband, Telramund, too, is problematic for Bychkov: “He’s a prisoner; a weak man who sees himself as a strong man. His life, his career, is guided by a wife who has more ambition than he does. He’s a miserable man who suffers greatly and in the end we know the result: we know that he is the first one to die. But, in the end, they’re all prisoners; none of them can escape their circumstances and their destiny.”
As he steps down from his role as Principal Conductor with the WDR orchestra after 13 years (during which time he transformed the Cologne-based band into a musical force of nature to be reckoned with) Lohengrin offers a vividly articulate and eloquent illustration of what a conductor such as Bychkov can do for and to a receptive and responsive orchestra.
What comes next for him is as much a moment of anticipation for Bychkov as for his growing legions of admirers, one tinged with almost Rabelaisian fervor.
“Recording Lohengrin in the studio, I always held out waiting for a miracle to happen. If you wait long enough, it will happen.”