6th October 2017
In the substantial opening movement, Lento lugubre, Bychkov progressively develops an undertow of dark foreboding that gradually imbues the writing. A spellbinding tension runs through the movement as the tormented soul “Manfred is wandering alone through the Alps”. The moving Astarte section, containing passion and longing, aptly reflects Manfred’s tender portrait of his sister. In the final section, at 15:32,Bychkov obtains significant power and an unsettling tension. In the second movement, marked Vivace con spirito “The Alpine fairy appears before Manfred in the rainbow of a waterfall”. There is a reassuring affection to the glowing writing of the Waterfall vision that Bychkov conducts with clarity of understanding, creating a quite magical and colourful effect. In Bychkov’s hands the music has a buoyant Mendelssohnian quality and the sound world of the composer’s ballets, especially The Nutcracker, is never far away. Under Bychkov’s unswerving direction the mainly bucolic mood of the slow third movement where “Manfred meets mountain people” effortlessly evokes a scene of verdant Bernese alpine valleys from flower strewn pastures, to ice cold streams to gleaming mountain peaks. The impressive playing of the Czech Philharmonic feels accomplished and assured, communicating an appealing sense of the joy of nature. The Finale, where “Manfred comes to Ahriman’s Palace to seek a reunion with Astarte…” opens with an infernal orgy, a furious bacchanal in the underground dominion of the evil king Arimanes and his eventual demise. This is music of potent energy and drama in a gripping performance from Bychkov and his Czech players. At 17:13 the weighty entrance of the organ adds another dimension to this colourful work prior to the music beginning to fade away. Conducting with a strong sense of security throughout, Bychkov provides a satisfying degree of shading and ensures a splendid internal balance of sound. The Czech strings excel with unity, weight and intensity, and the glowing brass and vibrant woodwind sections are detailed and expressive …
Without hesitation I can place this majestic new Decca recording from Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic comfortably alongside the finest available accounts in the catalogue.
30th September 2017
The orchestra announced the finale with an ostinato where each sound was bent to form the symphony’s denouement – persistent, heroic and triumphal – and superbly conducted by Bychkov.
21st September 2017
Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky performed by Italy’s radio orchestra in the concert hall? Radio symphony orchestras have to play a wide range of music but there was no arguing with the Russian-born soloist Kirill Gerstein, who kept Rachmaninov’s much-troubled C minor concerto free from film music pathos.
The 37-year-old has a technical mastery that allowed him to cope with even the most complex machinations – he picked up bunches of chords and sprinkled them like confetti over the long string chords of the RAI orchestra. True too that Maestro Bychkov’s conducting was also very clear, phrasing so that nothing was blurred and enabled Rachmaninov’s striking compositional style to evaporate in a nirvana of sound. But Gerstein’s transparency was paramount, occasionally at the cost of larger connections – but creating a dialogue that had the delicacy of chamber music.
Above all, these musicians succeeded in making the finale a ‘scherzando’ just as the composer prescribed it. This is a true rarity, just as Gerstein’s Tchaikovsky encore, the “meditation” from Op. 72, in which he balanced the voices with perfection.
Thus one shed a clarifying light on the much derided Russian romanticism, which is far less superficial than its reputation implies. This was also evident in Bychkov’s reading of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony in F Minor. Although the performance was a little too neat, it was full of energy and vigor, passionate though never overbearing. Great feelings are undoubtedly loud (and also at times inscrutably quiet), but Tchaikovsky’s extremely intense thematic piece does not disappoint – it is not a free for all but a symphony with a classical structure. Bychkov’s overview as kapellmeister guaranteed cohesion. The beautiful evening was completed with a gently rounded performance of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”.
21st September 2017
Full of power and silence
What else is there left to say after an encore of Edward Elgar’s theme from the “Enigma” variations with languid strings, and deep and sincerely meant sonorities. What then? Silence. A serious, long silence, which felt like minutes, filled the great hall of the Vienna Konzerthaus. No one dared to applaud. But then frenetic applause broke out, which was as profound and as loud as the striking program.
Semyon Bychkov and the RAI Orchestra brought us two highlights of the Russian music canon: starting with the incredible piano concerto No. 2 from Rachmaninov, the last of the pianist-romantics. Kirill Gerstein made the powerful opening moderato into an experience, as the melancholy of the main theme moved in favor of the Orchestra’s over-arching tonal paintings. The Adagio sostenuto was so heartfelt and gentle, as the theme returned for the finale. Gerstein and Bychkov were a meticulous and unshakeable team.
Then followed Tchaikovsky’s personal, autobiographical Symphony No. 4, the F minor: “Our Symphony” – an ode to his enduring correspondence with Nadeschda von Meck which is full of love and inspiration from beginning to end. The fateful cymbals were still pounding through the head as the poetic Canzona of the oboe and reflective pizzicato followed. The popular finale left no doubt about the composer’s love for his Russian home and distant friend. What an experience.