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Semyon Bychkov • Czech Philharmonic
Symphony No. 9 in D Major
Rudolfinum — Dvorak Hall
“This was a testament not only to Mahler, but also to Mr. Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic... this was a moving and intelligent reading of the Resurrection, dramatic in the opening and finale, sweet and playful in the inner movements, and sublime in the setting of Urlicht...”
The New York Times
Semyon Bychkov's tenure as Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic was initiated with concerts in Prague, London, New York and Washington marking the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovak independence in 2018. Since the culmination of The Tchaikovsky Project in 2019 – a 7-CD box set released by Decca Classics and a series of international residencies – Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic have been focusing on the symphonic works of Mahler with performances and recordings scheduled both at home and abroad.
During the 2021/22 season, Mahler’s First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies will all be heard internationally including on tour at the Grafenegg Festival in Austria during the summer. The Czech Philharmonic’s 126th season’s subscription concerts in October will open with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. In the spring, a Czech Festival at Vienna’s Musikverein featuring Smetana’s Má vlast – recorded by Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic during lockdown - alongside works by Kabeláč, Dvořák, Martinů and Janáček will be followed by an extensive European tour including concerts at the Philharmonie in Berlin, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie and two concerts at London’s Barbican Centre.
Especially recognised for his interpretations of the core repertoire, Bychkov has also worked closely with many extraordinary contemporary composers including Luciano Berio, Henri Dutilleux and Maurizio Kagel. In recent seasons he has collaborated with René Staar, Thomas Larcher, Richard Dubignon, Detlev Glanert and Julian Anderson, conducting premières of their works with the Vienna Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Highlights of the new season include the German première of Larcher’s Piano Concerto with dedicatee Kirill Gerstein in Berlin, the Czech première of Bryce Dessner’s Mari and the world première of Anderson’s Prague Panoramas, also presented in Prague. The three new works are amongst fourteen commissions initiated by Bychkov at the start of his tenure with the Czech Philharmonic.
In common with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov has one foot firmly in the culture of the East and the other in the West. Born in St Petersburg in 1952, Bychkov emigrated to the United States in 1975 and has lived in Europe since the mid-1980's. Singled out for an extraordinarily privileged musical education from the age of 5, Bychkov studied piano before winning his place at the Glinka Choir School where, aged 13, he received his first lesson in conducting. He was 17 when he was accepted at the Leningrad Conservatory to study with the legendary Ilya Musin and, within three years had won the influential Rachmaninov Conducting Competition. Denied the prize of conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic, Bychkov left the former Soviet Union.
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 began in France with Opéra de Lyon and at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, took off with a series of high-profile cancellations which 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.
Bychkov’s symphonic and operatic repertoire is wide-ranging. He conducts in all the major houses including La Scala, Opéra national de Paris, Dresden Semperoper, Wiener Staatsoper, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Teatro Real. Madrid. 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 each won the prestigious Premio Abbiati. New productions in Vienna included Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Daphne, Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal, and Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina; while in London, he made his debut with a new production of Strauss’ Elektra, and subsequently conducted new productions of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten and Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Recent productions include Wagner’s Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival and Strauss’s Elektra at the Wiener Staatsoper.
On the concert platform, the combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy has ensured that Bychkov’s performances are highly anticipated. In the UK, in addition to regular performances with the London Symphony Orchestra, his honorary titles at the Royal Academy of Music and the BBC Symphony Orchestra - with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms – reflect the warmth of the relationships. In Europe, he tours frequently with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Munich Philharmonic, as well as being a frequent guest of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Orchestre National de France and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; in the US, he can be heard with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Symphony, Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras. This season, in addition to extensive concert commitments with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov's guest conducting engagements include further performances of Mahler’s symphonies with the Orchestre de Paris, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Berlin, Oslo and LA Philharmonic Orchestras, and Strauss’s Elektra at the Opéra national de Paris.
Bychkov made extensive recordings for Philips with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Royal Concertgebouw, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. Later, his 13-year collaboration (1997-2010) with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne produced a series of benchmark recordings that included works by Strauss (Elektra, Daphne, Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen, Alpensinfonie, Till Eulenspiegel), Mahler (Symphony No. 3, Das Lied von der Erde), Shostakovich (Symphony Nos. 4, 7, 8, 10, 11), Rachmaninov (The Bells, Symphonic Dances, Symphony No. 2), Verdi (Requiem), a complete cycle of Brahms Symphonies, and works by Detlev Glanert and York Höller. His recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was recommended by BBC’s Radio 3’s Building a Library (2020); Wagner’s Lohengrin was BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Year (2010); and Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2 with the Vienna
Philharmonic was BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Month (2018).
In 2015, Semyon Bychkov was named Conductor of the Year by the International Opera Awards.
Symfonie č. 9 D dur
Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers
Rondo. Burleske. Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig
Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend
After the monumental Eighth Symphony—known as the “Symphony of a Thousand”—with vocal soloists and choir, and after the vocal symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), which the composer supposedly gave a programmatic title because of a fatalistic fear of the number nine (Beethoven, Bruckner, and Dvořák all wrote their ninth symphonies as their final symphonic creations), Gustav Mahler’s subsequent Ninth Symphony is more modest. Whether the tale of his fear of the number nine is true or just a legend nurtured by Alma Mahler, the composer did not cheat death. The Ninth Symphony became his last, while a tenth remained a torso, beautiful but unfinished.
Mahler’s symphonic oeuvre is remarkably complex. What is behind the musical structure shall forever remain a mystery that the composer did not reveal. In addition, unlike with the rest of his symphonies, there is a lack of details about the process by which the Ninth Symphony came into being. We do not learn much from the correspondence, nor can much be inferred from the preserved sketches, the first of which probably date from the summer of 1908. Mahler devoted his concentration to work on the symphony during the summer holiday of 1909 in the southern Tyrolean village Altschluderbach. At the time, he wrote to the conductor Bruno Walter: “You have guessed quite rightly the reason for my silence. I have been very hard at work, and I have finished a new symphony (my ninth). Unfortunately, the end of summer holiday is approaching, and I am in the annoying situation that—like always, once again this time—still completely out of breath, I have to leave behind paper and go back to the city and work. I am probably fated to it. The work itself (if I still know it because so far I have been writing as if under a spell, and now that I am beginning to orchestrate the last movement, I no longer remember the first) is a very agreeable enrichment of my little family. Something is said in it that I have had on the tip of my tongue for a long time—perhaps I would place it (as a whole) alongside the Fourth Symphony (but it is quite different). The score has been written down in terrible haste, and to someone else’s eyes it would certainly be illegible. I very much hope that this winter I shall manage to make a fair copy.” A comparison with the Fourth Symphony (1900) might seem odd. In the finale of the Fourth, Mahler uses the human voice for a musical setting of a text from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) as a lovely depiction of heavenly joys. Das Lied von der Erde, which preceded the Ninth Symphony, is a farewell to life that creates, if you will, a kind of link between the Mahler of the aforementioned Fourth Symphony and that of the Ninth; the purely instrumental Ninth Symphony is likewise a farewell, but rather than a tragic parting, it is reconciled, equanimous. We also find a similarity with the Fourth Symphony in the placement of a slow movement at the conclusion.
Mahler finished orchestrating the Ninth Symphony in December 1909 in New York, where he had taken over leadership of the New York Philharmonic that autumn, but he never got to hear it played. Nonetheless, he was in error when in June 1909 he wrote to his wife Alma that “the works of human hands are fleeting and mortal, but that which remains is what one becomes by tireless striving. [...] What we leave behind ourselves, if anything, is just skin, a shell...” The work of a great personality is lasting, and Mahler knew it. After all, in a different context, he also wrote: “My time will come.”
The Vienna Philharmonic gave the posthumous premiere of the Ninth Symphony with Bruno Walter conducting on 26 June 1912 in the Great Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna. Members of Vienna’s avant-garde understood the work immediately. Alban Berg called it the most beautiful thing that Mahler had ever written, and Arnold Schoenberg regarded the work as transcendent: “It almost seems as though this work must have a concealed author who used Mahler merely as his spokesman, as his mouthpiece. This symphony is no longer couched in the personal tone. It consists, so to speak, of objective, almost passionless statements of a beauty which becomes perceptible only to one who can dispense with animal warmth and feels at home in spiritual coolness. [...]It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not yet ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too near to the hereafter. Perhaps the riddles of this world would be solved, if one of those who knew them were to write a Tenth. And that probably is not to take place”, said Schoenberg in his memorable Prague lecture about Mahler given in the year of the symphony’s premiere. The Czech premiere took place on 6 November 1918 with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Otakar Ostrčil, a devoted interpreter of Mahler’s legacy. Another devoted interpreter was Alexander Zemlinsky, who performed the Ninth Symphony on 14 January 1923 with the orchestra of the New German Theatre and several times in the 1930s with the Czech Philharmonic as a guest conductor.
Mahler’s Ninth is very remote from classical formal models. It contains no clearly defined tonal relationships, and the two outer movements are both at a slow tempo. The symphony combines artful polyphonic writing with innovative harmonies. In the first movement, Mahler rejects the traditional handling of themes, yet at the same time the composer seems to be seeking a way back to it. The Scherzo “at the tempo of a leisurely landler” (the score says to play “somewhat clumsily and very coarsely”) has been likened to a dance of death. The composer dedicated the third movement, a burlesque rondo (to be played “very defiantly”) “to my brothers in Apollo”; its merriment is balanced on a precipice. Then the concluding Adagio dies away into nothingness and breaks all ties with earthly life.