26th February 2019
For the last two concerts at Prague’s Rudolfinum, the Czech Philharmonic performed lesser-known works by Tchaikovsky – his Symphony No. 2 Little Russian, Op. 17 and the second and third piano concertos, Op. 44 and Op. 75. The soloist for both concerts was pianist Kirill Gerstein, and for the first of the two programmes, he included the Concertino for the piano and chamber ensemble by Janáček, and the programme ended with Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major The Great.
Under the baton of the Czech Philharmonic’s Chief Conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov, the Czech Philharmonic has just recorded the second programme as part of its extensive Tchaikovsky Project. The two concerts were planned so that Tchaikovsky’s music and Kirill Gerstein’s performances could be heard in both Series A and B, but it was even better for audiences who could go to both evenings.
Each performance had a different atmosphere, but they had much in common: the Czech Philharmonic gave a great and detailed performance under Semyon Bychkov, with excellent performances from Kirill Gerstein for whom it must have been a real pleasure to perform with such a well-rehearsed Orchestra.
And something that was very noticeable was the joy of playing that emanated from all the members, and the warm relationship between the Chief Conductor and the Orchestra.
The idea for the Tchaikovsky Project came from the first concerts that Semyon Bychkov gave with the Czech Philharmonic, and launched in 2016 with the release of Symphony No. 6, coupled with the Romeo and Juliet fantasy. The completed project will include recordings of all Tchaikovsky Symphonies, Serenade for Strings, Francesco da Rimini, and the three concertos for piano and orchestra which Kirill Gerstein performed these weeks.
The recordings are now at the end and we look forward to the new boxset from Decca. The recordings are due for release in August, and the fact that we can really look forward to it is to be noted. It will not only be a testimony to the gradual transformation of the Czech Philharmonic under Bychkov’s leadership, but also a model interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic music. There are very few conductors who, like Semyon Bychkov, are above all great musicians and come from the pre-requisite Russian school of conducting, and have the same pure conception of Tchaikovsky’s music.
The first of the two programmes was a rare outing for the Janáček’s Concertino. Due to the chamber music nature of the work, it is rarely included in the programmes of symphony orchestras, and Kirill Gerstein’s playing was truly extraordinary. Born in Russia and now a US citizen, he is an extremely versatile artist. His playing is characterised by an unusual strength and almost electrifying tone, behind which one can hear his training in jazz and the practise that he has put in since his early years. Naturally, his tonal palette also includes a lightness, subtlety and gorgeous singing tone, but it was that rawness that was crucial for the great interpretation of the Concertino.
The highlight of the whole evening was Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major The Great. A bad interpretation of this hour-long piece can sound endless. The evening’s spectacular performance would ultimately be heard several times and every time, one could find something new in it. The audience had the opportunity to reap the results of Bychkov’s long, wearying and precise work on the details and variations he initiated in the orchestra. The beautiful oboe solo from Vladislav Borovka, and the excellent horns, stood out for the purity of sound. Bychkov brought an incredible charge and tension to the entire performance.
The second concert was an all-Tchaikovsky programme. The Second Piano Concerto was in the first half of the programme, a work which is unjustly in the shadow of the more famous First Piano Concerto in B minor but its melodies, technical difficulty and symphonic character completely justify it. Moreover, it gives the pianist the opportunity to show his art in the numerous pianos that penetrate the long first movement – and in this case, the audience could really enjoy the evening’s great soloist. The second movement is surprisingly intimate with violin and cellos solos in addition to those of the piano. Concert master Josef Špaček and principal cellist Václav Petr responded to the soloist very sensitively, literally passing back the melodies inspired by Ukrainian folk tunes.
The three concerts concluded with a performance of Symphony No. 2 Little Russian. Like the Second Piano Concerto, the work included Ukranian folk tunes, an area that the composer frequently visited to stay with his sister. The musical inspiration of East Slavic folklore shows the overall character of the work. It was incredible to see how the orchestra could feel the Ukrainian folk melodies as if it were its own. The long and demanding bassoon solo of Ondřej Roskovec was breath-taking which Semyon Bychkov recognised by giving him his bouquet. In reality, he had to divide the flowers so that at least half could be given to the first horn player Ondrej Vrabec for his solo at the opening of the symphony. They both really excelled from the joy of playing. It is clear from the mutual smiles and long thanks from the conductor to all the players in the orchestra, that relations between conductor and orchestra are good, that there is mutual respect and a real chemistry which is conjured up for audiences during performances, as it was for both these concerts.