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Special August concert is a satisfaction after the coronavirus ruined part of the 124th Season of the Czech Philharmonic. Chief Conductor Semyon Bychkov is recording Mahler with the orchestra and this concert is an opportunity to relish his interpretation of the fourth symphony. Soprano solo will be sung by famous Israeli soprano Chen Reiss.
Symphony No. 4 in G major
Chen Reiss soprano
Semjon Byčkov conductor
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Semyon Bychkov’s second season as the Czech Philharmonic’s Chief Conductor and Music Director saw the culmination of The Tchaikovsky Project started in 2015 before Bychkov's appointment to the Orchestra. In addition to the release on Decca Classics of all of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, the three piano concertos, Romeo & Juliet, Serenade for Strings and Francesca da Rimini, Bychkov and the Orchestra gave Tchaikovsky residencies in Prague, Tokyo, Vienna and Paris and appeared together for the first time at the BBC Proms. Highlights in Prague included the first time that Bychkov led the Orchestra in Smetana’s Má vlast.
In the 2020/21 season, the focus moves from Tchaikovsky to Mahler with performances of the symphonies scheduled both at home and abroad. New music will also be brought to the fore when Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic give the world premières of works by Bryce Dessner, Detlev Glanert and Thomas Larcher: three of the fourteen composers – nine Czech, five international – whose new commissions were initiated by Bychkov at the start of his tenure. Following their premières in Prague, Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic have performances in Vienna, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and London featuring Dessner's Symphony and Larcher's Piano Concerto, composed for Kirill Gerstein.
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.
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 include 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 and recording commitments with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov's guest conducting engagements include concerts with the Royal Concertgebouw, the Munich and Berlin Philharmonics, Leipzig Gewandhaus and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.
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. BBC Music Magazine voted Bychkov's recording of Wagner’s Lohengrin Disc of the Year in 2010; and his recording of Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2 with the Vienna Philharmonic Record of the Month, while Record Review’s Building a Library on BBC Radio 3 chose his recording of César Franck’s Symphony in D minor as their Recommended Recording. In 2015, Semyon Bychkov was named Conductor of the Year by the International Opera Awards.
At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from the summer of 1899 until April 1901, Mahler composed his Symphony No. 4, the most classical of his monumental symphonies. The composition has roots that reach back even further in time, however. During the frigid February of 1892, Mahler composed the song Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen for voice and piano to a text from the poetry collection The Youth’s Magic Horn, which contains more than seven hundred texts of old German folksongs and popular songs. The collection had been published nearly a century earlier in 1806–1808 by the young poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. Mahler discovered it by chance in 1887 while visiting the grandson of the composer Carl Maria von Weber, and he drew on it for subject matter for his compositions for another fourteen years. A month after composing the song, in March 1892 Mahler finished orchestrating it with the characteristic use of harp and sleigh bells, and he gave it his own title, Das himmlishe Leben (Heavenly Life). He took a special liking for the song, and he often included it on concert programmes of his music. It was originally to have been the conclusion of this Third Symphony, but ultimately that colossal work would have “just” six movements, and Heavenly Life instead became the finale, intellectual focus, and climax of the Fourth Symphony.
It might seem that the Fourth Symphony is just a continuation and completion of the Third, but already in the first movement we hear unmistakeable fanfares that foreshadow Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which was yet to come. In Mahler’s music, everything is closely tied together.The second movement, although dancelike, makes an oppressive impression – it is, after all, also a dance of death played on the fiddle by the skeleton Freund Hein! The solo violin is to be tuned a step higher to give it a harsher, shriller tone, making the soloist sound like a street musician instead of a concertmaster of a symphony orchestra. Mahler is said to have taken inspiration from Arnold Böcklin’s 1872 painting titled Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle. (In 1894, the same painting also inspired Jaroslav Vrchlický’s poem, in which a painter is creating a self-portrait but constantly feels something disturbing behind his back. When he turns around, he sees Death with a fiddle.)The third movement is the longest. It is a magnificent series of variations inspired by the vision of a tombstone on which there is a carved image of the departed in eternal sleep. The music leads us to a vision of heaven’s gates.
Beyond the gates we are welcomed by a “child’s” voice – a soprano – in heaven, where peace reigns supreme, where there is no bustle of the secular world, where everyone can rejoice and dance. And with this image of childlike naivety, Mahler completes his journey from the complex to the simple, from experience to innocence, and from earthly life to heavenly bliss.
In the twenty-first century, Mahler’s music and its message are still attractive to listeners. The form, content, and intellectual and emotional power of the music make it surprisingly relevant to our post-modern epoch.