When Semyon Bychkov chose the programme for his first subscription concert, he suggested Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony without hesitation, so that from the start of his tenure at the helm of the Czech Philharmonic, he would honour the orchestra’s national tradition. On the other hand, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia makes a striking contrast: it is a major, groundbreaking work of the twentieth century, and its importance is sometimes compared with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
Sinfonia for 8 voices and orchestra
Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70
Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov was born in Leningrad in 1952, immigrated to the United States in 1975, and has been based in Europe since the mid-1980’s. In common with the Orchestra, Bychkov has one foot firmly in the cultures both of the East and the West.
Following his concerts with the Czech Philharmonic in 2013, Bychkov and the Orchestra devised The Tchaikovsky Project, a series of concerts, residencies and studio recordings which allowed them the luxury of exploring Tchaikovsky’s music together. The Tchaikovsky Project launched in autumn 2016 with Deccaʼs release of Symphony No. 6 coupled with the Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture, and was followed a year later with the release of the Manfred Symphony. The Tchaikovsky Project culminates in autumn 2019 with the release of all Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, the three piano concertos, Romeo & Juliet, Serenade for Strings and Francesca da Rimini, followed by residencies with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague, Tokyo, Paris and Vienna.
In 1989, fourteen years after leaving the former Soviet Union, Bychkov returned to St Petersburg as the Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor, the same year as he was named Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris. His international career had taken off several years earlier when a series of high-profile cancellations resulted in invitations to conduct the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestras. In 1997, he was appointed Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, and the following year, Chief Conductor of the Dresden Semperoper.
Bychkov conducts the major orchestras and at the major opera houses in the US and Europe. In addition to his title with the Czech Philharmonic, he holds honorary titles with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms, and the Royal Academy of Music with whom the Czech Philharmonic will initiate a series of education initiatives from 2020. He was named "Conductor of the Year" at the 2015 International Opera Awards.
On the concert platform, the combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy has ensured that Bychkov’s performances are highly anticipated. With repertoire that spans four centuries, this season, in addition to his commitments to the Czech Philharmonic which include an extensive tour across Japan and concerts in Russia, China and Spain, Bychkov will conduct the Munich Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw at home and in Germany, as well as performances of Strauss's Elektra in Vienna and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in London.
Bychkov’s recording career began in 1986 when he was signed by Philips and began a significant collaboration which produced an extensive discography with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Royal Concertgebouw, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. Subsequently a series of benchmark recordings – the result of his 13-year collaboration (1997-2010) with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne – include a complete cycle of Brahms Symphonies, and works by Strauss, Mahler, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Verdi, Detlev Glanert and York Höller. His recording of Wagner’s Lohengrin was voted BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Year in 2010; and his recording of Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2 with the Vienna Philharmonic chosen as BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Month.
London Voices (sometimes known as London Sinfonietta Voices) is a London-based choral ensemble led by Terry Edwards, who founded the ensemble in 1973. They have been involved in numerous recordings of operas and soundtracks including The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover, Ravenous, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Lord of the Rings series, the Harry Potter series, Heavy Metal, The Mission, Enemy at the Gates, La traviata, and The Passion of the Christ. They have recorded with such diverse artists as Luciano Pavarotti, Dave Brubeck, Amy Grant, and Queen.
As few as three or as many as 150 singers can be part of the group at one time, and more than one unit of London Voices can be deployed to perform at various venues. London Voices draws on the pool of very talented freelance professional solo, consort, and choral singers who live in and around the capital. It selects for each project the most suitable team which is then coached by one of its highly esteemed directors, Terry Edwards and Ben Parry. The membership of London Voices is not fixed and thus the singers are carefully selected for each engagement.
The numerous recordings of the London Voices have appeared on labels as Caroline, Erato Records, Sony Classical, Virgin Music, Elektra Nonesuch, Varèse Sarabande, Warner Reprise, EMI, London Records, Decca Records, Chandos Records, Telarc, and Teldec.
Luciano Berio ranks among the most important composers of the second half of the 20th century. His innovative approach to composition, not least of electronic works, has substantially shifted the boundaries of contemporary classical music. Written in 1968, Sinfonia for eight voices and orchestra is perhaps Berio’s best-known composition, as well as an essential work of twentieth-century music. It can be viewed as a kind of synthesis of musical expression from various periods of history, with the composer examining and further developing their deeper layers. The Sinfonia is conceived in five movements, the last of which was added after the premiere. It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, which performed it for the first time under the composer’s baton. The vocal parts sometimes form part of the orchestral sound, which they complete; at other times they float above, adding singing or reciting on top of the increasingly complex orchestral texture, with dynamics and expression that range from whispers to excited cries. Berio employs the potential of the human voice in its full breadth: sometimes plosive consonants are all that is needed to achieve the desired sound effect; at other times the singers quote Samuel Beckett or Claude Lévi-Strauss – or even comment upon the ongoing performance.
In the first movement, the composer draws on texts by Lévi-Strauss, analysing the myths of Native South Americans – specifically, the myths concerned with the origin of water. The meditative second movement, O King,refers to Martin Luther King, with the text consisting solely of the name of the American Baptist minister and human rights activist. The crux of the work is in its third movement, a masterful layering of variously transformed fragments of well-known works by other composers, all of this on top of the scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony. For instance, we hear references to Debussy’s La Mer, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Berg’s Violin Concerto. A short fourth movement is followed by the concluding collage, employing and unifying elements of all the preceding movements.
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70,one of Antonín Dvořák’s masterworks, was written at the invitation of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, which made the composer an honorary member in 1884. At that time Dvořák already enjoyed in England the unshakeable position as one of the greatest living composers. In late November 1884, he completed the score of his cantata, The Spectre’s Bride, and since the Philharmonic Society planned to present the world premiere of Dvořák’s new symphony – to be conducted by the composer – as early as the spring of the next year, he quickly started work on it. He completed the opus within three months and on 22 April 1885 he could introduce it at a Philharmonic Society concert in St James’s Hall, London.
The dramatic, sombre atmosphere of the Seventh Symphony, rich in ideas and a masterpiece of form, is often put into the context of the Czech nation’s struggle for identity within the multinational Habsburg Empire. Even if we abstract from the possible connections with the social, cultural and political situations of the Czechs at the time, we see that the symphony’s message is readily intelligible as a general statement about human existence.
The opening movement – Allegro maestoso – unusually starts in pianissimo with a plaintive, gloomy main theme in violas and cellos. The auxiliary theme, in B flat major, brings a sudden change of atmosphere, but its clarity is soon disrupted: the internal struggle continues and the doubts are far from being dispelled. Despite an airy melody presented by the clarinet, the lyrical second movement gradually develops an increasingly urgent and agitated aspect. The third movement that follows – Scherzo – is perhaps the work’s best-known. It is distinguished by a strong rhythm in its main theme, but its carefree dance character is dampened both by the D minor tonality and a contrasting countermelody, adding a certain melancholy to its liveliness. Like the opening Allegro maestoso, the final movement is in sonata form. After a dramatic surge, the gloomy atmosphere lightens up – it is as if the conclusion, in D major, symbolised a firm determination and a convincing victory of the will.
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