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Czech Philharmonic • Semyon Bychkov
Symphony in B Minor (“Unfinished”), D 759
Franz Schubert/Luciano Berio
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Rudolfinum — Dvorak Hall
Luciano Berio was often asked to “do something” with Schubert. He consistently refused until he got his hands on the sketches of Schubert’s Tenth Symphony, written during the last weeks of the composer’s life. Berio wished to avoid a musicological approach, by which one could do much harm in a cavalier attempt to complete the symphony, “as if one were Schubert or even Beethoven”. Instead, Berio tries to bring old colours back to life, as if restoring Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi without disguising the effects of time or filling in the blank spaces. His instrumentation of Schubert’s sketches is in the spirit of the Unfinished Symphony, resorting to the orchestration methods of Mendelssohn only when the music demands it. He fills in the spaces between the individual sketches with music in his own musical language woven from reminiscences of Schubert’s late works, gentle polyphony, and echoes of the music that precedes and follows. Berio tiptoes quietly around Schubert, and every transition between sketches is announced by the celesta. The result is an enchanting symphony full of music that is pure Schubert that sparkles like a precious gem that has been gently, masterfully illuminated by Luciano Berio.
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 Fifth and Ninth Symphonies will be heard on tour at the Grafenegg Festival in Austria before performances in Prague. 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, Oslo Philharmonic and LA Philharmonic, 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.
Symphony in B Minor (“Unfinished”)
Franz Schubert (1797–1828) made several attempts at symphonic music early in his youth while he was a pupil at a Stadtkonvikt school. His first completed symphony dates from 1813; within the next five years it was followed by five other symphonies. The period between 1818 and 1822 was a time of searching for expression, which resulted in fragments only – if we include the two-movement Symphony in D minor nicknamed “Unfinished”; his posthumously discovered “Great” C major Symphony was created in the years 1825–1826. The numbering of Schubert’s symphonies is still an issue. As a “fragment”, the “Unfinished” Symphony was initially numbered as the Eighth, but later it was called No. 7 in chronological order. However, some researchers have recently assigned No. 7 to the reconstructed symphonic fragment in E major (D 729) and so there is no clearly defined order. This is not the only question associated with the “Unfinished” Symphony. The title page of the autograph bears the date of 30 October 1822 as the day of commencement of the composition. The manuscript contains two movements in full score and nine orchestrated measures of the third movement; for the next ten measures, the instruments are only indicated and the manuscript of the movement ends with the sixteenth measure of the trio. There are various hypotheses why Schubert left the work in progress. One of them finds a correlation between the symphony and Schubert’s being elected an honorary member of the Steiermärkischer Musikverein (Styrian Music Society) in Graz in 1823. Schubert thanked for this honor in writing and promised to send a new symphony (apparently attaching only the two completed movements), hoping that the society would perform it. When this did not happen, he put the work aside. Another interpretation refers to the above-mentioned period of search, considering it possible that Schubert decided to compose a symphony consisting of just two movements instead of the traditional four-movement form. The score reappeared forty years later, being kept by Schubert’s friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, the chairman of the Styrian Music Society appointed in 1825. Thirty years after that (in 1865), Hüttenbrenner handed the score over to Johann Herbeck, the music director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien (Society of Friends of Music in Vienna). The “Unfinished” Symphony was heard for the first time on 17 December 1865 in the Redoutensaal in Vienna under Herbeck’s direction, being called “a pearl of rare price” by one of the critics.
The “Unfinished” Symphony is the first known symphony in history composed in the B minor key. In 1806, Christian F. D. Schubart published his book Ideen zu einer Ästhetik der Tonkunst (Ideas on the Aesthetics of Music), dealing with psychological links of certain keys to the expression and mood of a musical piece. According to Schubart, “B minor is the key of patience, of calm awaiting one’s fate and of submission to divine dispensation”. Franz Schubert was undoubtedly familiar with Schubart’s book, and his choice of the key was clearly deliberate. The form of the first movement is completely new. Schubert skipped the slow introduction, characteristic of classical symphonies, while not giving up the principle: his symphony opens with a mysterious entrance of cellos and basses, joined by the other strings; the first theme, played by oboes and clarinets, appears in the thirteenth measure. The second theme is a stylized Austrian folk dance, Ländler, whose melody is again played by cello. The lyrical mood is suddenly interrupted by an orchestral tutti. In the development, Schubert’s music becomes dramatic; in the recapitulation, the mood of the exposition returns, but the second theme is kept in the parallel D major key, so there is no tonal unification. Another new feature is the similarity of the mood of the first and second movements. The second movement consists of two themes, variations of two-measure motifs. It is one of the most beautiful slow movements ever; its lyrical passages alternate with sudden eruptions, but in the end “the submission to divine dispensation” prevails overall. Sketches of the scherzo are at variance with the character of the completed movements, which Schubert must have felt, and decided that they could not – and should not be – bridged. What he has managed to say in two movements is sufficient, and the symphony seems to be a fully worked out composition.
To some extent, the “unfinished” state of Symphony in B minor can be explained by sketches, which were identified as sketches for Symphony in D major (D 936 A) as late as the 1970s. They come from 1828, and the fragment of the slow movement is perhaps Schubert’s last musical notation from the last few weeks of his life. There are 1027 bars in total left by Schubert in an almost pianistic form with occasional instrumental indications (short score). The movements are entitled Allegro maestoso, Andante and Scherzo, with a sketch of the third movement having two versions and a second sketch suggesting that Schubert meant it as the final movement. The analogy of searching for a form similar to that of the “Unfinished” is obvious, and therefore some researchers speak of a fantasia rather than a symphony. Although Schubert evidently started this composition emulating Beethoven’s pattern, he set out on the path leading to “the stage from Schubert to Mahler”.
In the years 1989–1990, Luciano Berio composed Rendering (1989) based on Schubert’s sketches for Symphony in D major for the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Previously, there were several attempts to arrange these fragments, for example, by Peter Gülke (for orchestra), Rudi Leopold (for three cellos and a double bass) and Klaus Arp (for wind octet). Berio was not interested in a transcription or a paraphrase, or in a reconstruction or completion of the composition; he was not going to pretend to be Schubert. He compared practice to the work of art restorers who try to “improve” historical monuments and do irreparable damage to them. Berio said, “As I worked on Schubert’s sketches, I set myself the target of following those modern restoration criteria that aim at reviving the old colors without however trying to disguise the damage that time has caused, often leaving inevitable empty patches in the composition.” Berio used the same instrumentation as in the “Unfinished” Symphony, while trying to preserve Schubert’s color. The instrumental indications written by Schubert almost in shorthand had to be completed above all in the internal and bass parts. Berio felt that Schubert wanted to get away from Beethoven’s influence, and in the slow movement which impressed him the most he also recognized “Mahler’s spirit”. The gaps that exist between one sketch and another are connected by pianissimo passages, constantly different and changing, always announced by the sound of a celesta, intermingled with Schubert reminiscences. During his last days Schubert took lessons in counterpoint, and amongst his sketches for the Symphony in D major there is a brief counterpoint exercise, which Berio also orchestrated and integrated into the Andante. Schubert applied his study of counterpoint to the sketches for a scherzo and a finale. “These last sketches, although very fragmentary, are of great homogeneity and they show Schubert in the process of testing different contrapuntal possibilities for one and the same thematic material.” Berio sought to maintain the ambiguity in the structure of the movement. Two movements of Rendering were performed for the first time on 14 June 1989 by the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and on 19 April 1990 Riccardo Chailly gave the world premiere of the complete composition with the same orchestra and at the same place.
Symfonie č. 7 A dur op. 92
The nine symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) represent an unquestionable landmark in the evolution of this genre. While Beethoven’s predecessors Haydn and Mozart established the formal structure of the symphony, Beethoven followed from the inherited principle in each symphony, working it out in an individual way. The symphony finally became a complete work in terms of musical ideas; the significance of the sonata movement in the development increased as a result of the thematic work, and each symphony acquired an individual character. Beethoven began composing Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, in October 1811; from April 1812 he worked on its full score. At the same time he began composing his Eighth Symphony, which he finished as early as October of the same year. He realized that the loss of his hearing was inevitable, and coped with this fact by hectic creativity. The circumstances of Beethoven’s private life during these two years are one of the greatest mysteries, not fully explained up to this day. In the summer months of 1812, Beethoven, suffering from rheumatic problems, went to West Bohemian spa towns. On his way there he stopped in Prague and from the beginning of July to the beginning of October he stayed in Teplice (Teplitz), Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) and Františkovy Lázně (Franzensbad). He took the symphony in progress with him. The town of Karlovy Vary is connected with Beethoven’s letter to “the Immortal Beloved”; his memorable meeting with Johann Wolfgang Goethe took place in Teplice. Count Kinský, one of Beethoven’s patrons, died in an accident in November 1812, which together with the depreciation of the currency as a result of the Napoleonic Wars made Beethoven feel that he was now just a “poor Austrian musician”. Beethoven’s conflict with his brother Johann who, according to Beethoven, lived with a woman of questionable morals, and the illness of his other brother Karl were another of the many worries that plagued the composer. At the same time, both the Seventh and the Eighth are cheerful works, as if unaffected by external influences.
The Seventh Symphony was first performed in private in April 1813 in the residence of the Archduke Rudolf; the concert was prepared by Beethoven’s friend Mikuláš Zmeškal (Nikolaus Zmeskáll), a native of Leštiny (present-day Slovakia), and Antonín Vranický (Anton Wranitzky), a bandmaster at the court of Prince Lobkowicz. The work premiered on 8 December 1813 at a charity concert in the hall of the Vienna University together with Wellington’s Victory, or the Battle of Vittoria, Op. 91. This impressive piece of martial music was composed to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat in June the same year. The concert included musicians such as Louis Spohr, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Ignaz Moscheles and Antonio Salieri. It was organized by the inventor of music automatons, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who made hearing aids (ear trumpet) for Beethoven. The battle piece was received with much more enthusiasm than the Seventh Symphony. The successful concert was repeated on 12 December 1813, and immediately after the arrival of the New Year, Beethoven gave a benefit with the same program on 2 January 1814 in the Redoutensaal in Vienna. In the following season, on 29 November 1814, both compositions were performed together with the premiere of another piece of incidental music written by Beethoven for the opening of the Congress of Vienna, Der glorreiche Augenblick (The Glorious Moment). It was such a success that the whole program had to be reprised on 2 and 25 December, and according to Beethoven’s secretary and biographer, Anton Schindler, these were “the proudest days in Beethoven’s existence”. Beethoven dedicated the Seventh Symphony to Count Moritz von Fries, an industrialist and banker, who was a prominent collector and patron of the arts. However, his passion and eccentric life led to his bankruptcy, and Fries’s rise and fall even served as inspiration for Ferdinand Raimund’s play Der Verschwender’ (The Spendthrift). The popularity of the Seventh Symphony grew after its publication in 1816. Beethoven took advantage of the fame of this composition and reworked it for piano two and four hands, i.e., for two pianos; he dedicated these arrangements to the Empress Elizaveta (Elizabeth) Alexeyevna of Russia, born Princess Luise von Baden.
In Seventh Symphony, there is the pathos of the Fifth and the elemental joy of the Sixth. In the first movement we find both positions in a slow introduction and in the entrance of the main theme, whose syncopated rhythm gives rise to the following idea. The double variations of the second movement are a masterful sample of Beethoven’s thematic work; the trio in three sections features a melody of a pilgrim’s song common in Lower Austria. Richard Wagner called the symphony an “apotheosis of the dance” probably primarily because of the elementary fury of its finale.