Symphony No. 9 in D Major
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-1980s. Like the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov has one foot firmly in the cultures both of the East and the West.
Following his early 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. Its first fruit was released by Decca in October 2016, followed in August 2017 by the release of the Manfred symphony. The projectculminates in 2019 with residencies in Prague, Vienna and Paris, and Decca’s release of all Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, the three piano concertos, Romeo & Juliet, Serenade for Strings and Francesca da Rimini.
Fourteen years after leaving the former Soviet Union, Bychkov returned to St Petersburg in 1989 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, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. 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 U.S. and Europe. In addition to his title with the Czech Philharmonic, he holds the Günter Wand Conducting Chair with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with which he appears annually at the BBC Proms, and the honorary Klemperer Chair of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. 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, the coming season brings two weeks of concerts with the New York Philharmonic, which includes the US première of Thomas Larcher’s Symphony No. 2, and the Cleveland Orchestra where he will conduct Detlev Glanert, Martinů and Smetana. In Europe, his concerts include performances with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Munich and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and the Royal Concertgebouw.
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 Orchestra, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. Subsequently a series of benchmark recordings – the result of his 13-year collaboration (1997–2010) with the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne – include a complete cycle of Brahms’s Symphonies, and works by Strauss, Mahler, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, 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 recent recording of Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2 with the Vienna Philharmonic was selected as BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Month.
The Austrian composer Gustav Mahler is connected with this country in many different ways. He was born in the Bohemian-Moravian borderlands (in Kaliště, a village near Humpolec), and he spent the first fifteen years of his life in nearby Jihlava in the family of a Jewish merchant. In what was mostly a German city at the time (Jihlava is Iglau in German), he also received a basic musical education. He later returned to Czech-speaking territory as conductor at the theatre in Olomouc and later at the German Theatre in Prague (Estates Theatre). Later, for example, he conducted the world premiere of Dvořák’s symphonic poem Píseň bohatýrská (A Hero’s Song). He conducted the world premiere of his own Seventh Symphony in Prague in 1908 with the Czech Philharmonic.
All his life, Mahler was burdened with exhausting duties as a conductor, and this explains his relatively small output as a composer, but most of his works are lengthy and call for vast forces. His oeuvre consists of nine completed symphonies (four of which have a vocal component), an incomplete Tenth Symphony, the vocal/orchestral works Das klagende Lied (Song of Lamentation) and Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), four song cycles with orchestra, and a few arrangements of works by other composers (e.g. Weber’s opera Die drei Pintos – The Three Pintos).
The period when Mahler was composing his Ninth Symphony was an important turning point in his life. In 1907 he decided to end his ten-year tenure as artistic director of the prestigious Vienna Court Opera and to depart for America. His conducting engagements at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic offered him better financial terms and working conditions, among other things. It was still in Austria that he really felt at home. He rented a house near the Tyrolean town Toblach, and it was there in the peace and quiet of the natural surroundings that were dear to him that he composed his Ninth Symphony during the summer holiday of 1909. The definitive score was finished the next spring. Mahler did not live to hear his Ninth Symphony. The gravely ill artist’s wish to return home to Vienna from America was fulfilled, but there, as a consequence of chronic heart disease further complicated by a streptococcus infection, he died short of his fifty-first birthday. Only afterwards did his last completed symphony receive its premiere in June 1912. Leading the performance was Bruno Walter, the composer’s outstanding younger conducting colleague from Germany who had also already given the posthumous premiere of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.
Mahler’s Ninth Symphony employs purely instrumental forces. The large orchestra features expanded wind and percussion sections. The four movements have little in common with the classical symphonic genre, including their curious sequence of keys (D major, C major, A minor, and D flat major). The vast, slow outer movements constitute the symphony’s intellectual and philosophical centre of gravity, while the pair of deliberately coarse, grotesque inner movements provide a maximum contrast. The symphony stands out for its masterful orchestration, but the meditative culmination of the whole work is entrusted to the strings playing alone as the softest dynamics.
The Ninth Symphony tends to be viewed as Mahler’s farewell to this world. However it was intended, it is not only the composer’s last completed work, but also more generally the last word in the symphonic genre for the entire nineteenth century. We would add that the Czech Philharmonic gave the first performance of the work in Prague in November 1918 under the baton of Otakar Ostrčil.
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