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29th May 2019


Michael Bastian Weiß

There is an interesting detail right at the beginning:  the two harps are sitting far away in the Philharmonie, one on each side of the stage.  In “Vysehrad” the first tone poem in his cycle “Má vlast – my homeland”, Smetana had to decide whether the input theme and the subsequent cadences should be performed by a single player, fitting the profile of the self-accompanying bard, or whether the elements should be distributed between the two instruments.


In the way that Semyon Bychkov conducts the passage with the Munich Philharmonic harps, there are pretty echo effects: as if at the beginning a second voice was answering the first.


In the subsequent poem, the popular “Vltava”, the two flutes which symbolize the two springs from which the river flows, can also be heard distinctly each from the other.  And, it was similar also with the semi-staged solo performances of the instruments throughout the performance of the six tone poems.


Throughout, Bychkov achieved a unified sound with the Munich Philharmonic.  Although intimidating in their massive appearance, the double basses in the final two parts “Tábor” and “Blaník” – featuring the sublime Hussite chorale – created a pleasant and warm environment. Even within the highlighted trumpet fanfares, woodwinds and horns were well integrated.


This cohesive sound paralleled the excellent and organic way in which Bychkov’s  elegant conducting style interpreted the overall arches of the individual symphonic poems. Even with the supposed breaks in tempo, which are totally logical in terms of Smetana’s composition, a fundamentally unifying pulse remained audible.


This was finely modified, for example, in the individual episodes of the “Vltava”, and the final crescendo of the third poem, the gloomy legend where the murderous Amazonian Sárka is unreservedly driven out.  But Bychkov never lost the overall image of these individual moments, so that one experienced the cycle both as a single movement, and as a cycle.

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27th May 2019

Sueddeutsche Zeitung

Klaus Kalchschmid

When did “Vyšehrad”, the first of six symphonic poems from Bedřich Smetana’s “Ma Vlást – my homeland” get as much rehearsal as it has with Semyon Bychkov and the Munich Philharmonic at the Gasteig?  Opening with two harps, indicating that this is “an old story”, the colourful and melodious music describes the fate of the castle from its golden splendour to its destruction.  Once the Castle stood high above Prague, where today there is a large church.


The subsequent “Vltava” is well-known but enchanting, and here sounded more beautiful and exciting than ever before.  “Šarka” tells the gruesome story of a woman who lures her lover into a deadly trap, and Bychkov and the truly light-hearted Philharmonic lost no detail, nor melodic or harmonic subtlety of the instrumental score this Sunday morning.


The fact that the fourth poem “From Bohemia’s woods and fields”, with its colourful and diverse portrayal of nature-loving, should actually be the end of the cycle, can still be heard a little today, because both “Tábor” – the movement about the Czech freedom fighting Hussites – with its piercing stomping brass chords and “Blanik” have similar themes in terms of music and content, but they no longer have the high inspiration and density of the earlier four parts.

Whether it was the wonderfully bronze tone of the strings, the radiant brass or the subtle winds: it was all the more impressive that neither the tension nor the beauty of the tonal form waned before the moment of the triumphant finale.

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27th May 2019

Munchner Merkur

Anna Schürmer

In the most famous poem, Vltava, Bychkov used expansive gestures to draw from the Orchestra the bubbling springs and majestic stream; while in From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields in a gently swaying motive, the romanticism of the vast, local landscape which grabbed you by the ears, with the Orchestra – especially the strings – building to a finely coiled tension. Dramatic movement characterized the third movement about the mythical Amazonian queen Šárka, before the two final tone poems Tábor and Blaník – partly triumphant and partly pastoral – completed the sound narrative.

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14th May 2019

Seem and Heard International

Mark Sebastian Jordan

It is often interesting to hear forgotten byways of the repertory, particularly ones that disappeared for a period of time. I wish I could report that the restored original version of Max Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos provided a notable diversion, but it does not, despite the game advocacy of sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque. Three of the work’s four movements would be suitable enough for generic background music, because other than a vague warmth, they supply even less interest than the composer’s two violin concertos—neither of which ranks high in my pantheon.

Only the third movement rises to a more communicative plane. Warmly romantic, the movement would stand nicely on its own outside the concerto, which Bruch adapted from his Third Orchestral Suite. For many years, only a simplified version of the concerto’s solo parts was heard, as arranged by the original dedicatees, Rose and Ottilie Sutro. But in the 1970s, the original parts were discovered and published.

The Labèques have nothing to fear from the greater technical demands of the original solo parts, though all too often Bruch gives them little more than decoration and scales—lots of scales. The sisters were supported ably by guest conductor Semyon Bychkov and the Cleveland Orchestra. Suffice it to say, however, that the Labèques’ encore, ‘Le Jardin Feerique’ from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite had more substance in its three minutes than its predecessor had in almost thirty.

Much more interesting was the opening, Weites Land: Musik mit Brahms (2013) from Detlev Glanert, a German composer little-known in the United States. Evoking “the Brahmsian smell of marshland and wide skies” in northern Germany, the piece starts with gestures derived from Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, but takes them different places, brooding in a richly cinematic manner. While the majority of the score is lyrical, there is also a considerable tension that at times erupts in a more angular manner. It is the sort of music to which any listener can imagine his or her own story, quite independent of the Brahmsian roots. It certainly whetted the appetite for more from the composer, and Bychkov was a strong and convincing advocate.

In recent years, the Russian-born conductor has been directing the Czech Philharmonic, to considerable acclaim. He closed this concert with a portion of a Czech classic, the first three sections of Smetana’s patriotic cycle Má Vlast (My Fatherland), a set of six Lisztian tone poems.

Bychkov was a little more broad than most with the opening Vyšehrad, the Mighty Fortress, which evokes the medieval castle that overlooks Prague. He  found grandeur that a more straightforward reading can miss, though it can’t be denied that this first section is slighter than the other two. Nonetheless, the opening strumming of two unaccompanied harps is a classic moment, all the more evocative live, and Bychkov’s emphasis on the fairytale atmosphere made it more vivid than usual.

Vltava, well-known in German as Die Moldau, is probably Smetana’s most famous work, which too often slips into autopilot as a catalog of pleasant scene paintings. Bychkov resolutely refused to let it sound hackneyed. He delved into each turn of phrase as if hearing it for the first time, relishing the shape and development of Smetana’s ideas, turning in the best reading I’ve heard in quite a few years.

Likewise for Šárka, the Warrior Princess, Bychkov left room for fresh evocation, only driving hard in the closing pages to the fiery end. The orchestra sounded rich and colorful under Bychkov’s baton, delivering full justice to Smetana’s fervent score

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