Concerto No. 3 in C Major for piano and orchestra op. 26
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor op. 64
Born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in 1952, Semyon Bychkov was 20 when he won the Rachmaninov Conducting Competition. Two years later, having been denied his prize of conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, he left the former Soviet Union where, from the age of five, he had been singled out for an extraordinarily privileged education in music. First studying piano, Bychkov was then selected to study at the Glinka Choir School and received his first conducting lesson aged 13. Four years later he enrolled at the Leningrad Conservatory where he studied conducting with the legendary Ilya Musin.
By the time Bychkov returned to St Petersburg in 1989 as the Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor, he had enjoyed success in the US as Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic. His international career, which had begun in France where he made his debuts with the Opéra de Lyon and at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, had taken off when a series of high-profile cancellations resulted in invitations to conduct the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestras. In 1989, he was named Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris; in 1997, Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne; and, the following year, Chief Conductor of the Dresden Semperoper.
Semyon Bychkov’s approach to music making combines innate musicality with the rigours of Russian pedagogy. With his time carefully balanced between the concert hall and the opera house, Bychkov conducts repertoire that spans four centuries.
In the opera house, Bychkov is recognised for his interpretation of Strauss, Wagner and Verdi. Nonetheless, while Principal Guest Conductor of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, his productions of Janáček’s Jenůfa, Schubert’s Fierrabras, Puccini’s La bohème, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov were awarded the prestigious Premio Abbiati. Most recently, Semyon Bychkov conducted Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House – his recording of the work was chosen by Opera Magazine as one of the 30 ‘all-time great recordings’; and Wagner’s Parsifal at Madrid’s Teatro Real. He opened the 2016/2017 season at Covent Garden with a new production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, and in spring 2017 Parsifal at the Wiener Staatsoper.
Bychkov’s recording career began in 1986 when he signed with Philips and began a significant collaboration which produced an extensive discography with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Royal Concertgebouw, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. These were later followed by a series of benchmark recordings, the result of his 13-year collaboration (1997–2010) with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne. His recording of Lohengrin was voted BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Year in 2010.
In October 2016, Decca released the first CD of the Tchaikovsky Project, a long-term collaboration with the Czech Philharmonic which will encompass all of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, featuring Symphony No. 6 Pathétique coupled with Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture.
Semyon Bychkov currently holds the Klemperer Chair of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music, and the Gunther Wand Chair with the BBC Symphony Orchestra with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms. The International Opera Awards named Semyon Bychkov 2015’s Conductor of the Year.
Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953) was a versatile musician. He studied composition, conducting and piano at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, graduating with his First Piano Concerto. However, his Second Piano Concerto, composed in the same period, was misunderstood by the audience and condemned as too “Futuristic”. After the outbreak of the October Revolution Prokofiev left Russia with the ambition to become a successful composer in America. Before leaving for the United States he spent a summer on the coast of France in Brittany, where he wrote Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3.
The musical ideas of individual movements came into being over several years, and the entire composition was not finished until the summer holidays of 1921. The concerto was performed for the first time in December of the same year by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Frederick Stock with Prokofiev himself at the piano. The concerto did not gain immediate popularity either at the premiere or at the subsequent performance in New York and had to wait until 1922 for an outstanding success at a concert in Paris conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. The Third Piano Concerto is the only one of the five piano concertos by Prokofiev in three movements; by its technical complexity, richness of distinct rhythms, untamed energy as well as poetic passages it presents a true picture of brilliant pianism and unique personality of its author.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky conducted his own compositions during his visits to Prague in 1888 and 1892, where he befriended Antonín Dvořák and other feted artists. Shortly after his first tour of the city, he plunged into writing his Symphony No. 5 in E minor Op. 64. The piece is not based on a specific programme, yet it is deemed to be related to Tchaikovsky’s journal entries dating from the second half of the 1880s, in which he frequently manifests his depressed state of mind and ponders the issues of human existence, life and the inevitability of fate, seeking solace in religious faith.
The glum introduction to the first movement, Andante – Allegro con anima, depicts the individual’s being subject to irreversible destiny, yet it is followed by doubts and the dramatic struggle of the human with the forces of evil (according to some Tchaikovsky connoisseurs, they represent the qualms resulting from the composer’s homosexual orientation).
The first movement presents the recurring “Providence” motif, which serves as a device lending unity to the whole symphony. The dreamy second movement, Andante cantabile, with a lyrical opening theme delivered by the solo horn, comes across as an expression of the desire for the unattainable ideal and a celebration of the beauties of life. In its second half, the conciliatory feelings give way to dramatic agitations, yet all the contradictions end in an overall appeasement and resignation. The lightened third, waltz, movement, Allegro moderato,is devoid of all the woeful feelings the composer faced during his life. In the final movement, Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace,written in the sonata form, the Providence motif is presented in a manner expressing the triumph of life over death.
Symphony No. 5 was premiered on 17 November 1888 in Saint Petersburg, with the composer himself conducting. Whereas the audience responded to it with great enthusiasm, some critics deemed the work to be routine and superficial, with Tchaikovsky himself having doubts as to the quality of the piece. Yet his scepticism was duly dispelled four years later, during his second visit to Prague, when it met with unequivocal acclaim on the part of professionals and the general music-loving public alike.
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