Czech Philharmonic • Semyon Bychkov

A few years ago, over 100 conductors around the world took part in a secret ballot for the greatest symphony of all time. Mahler’s last symphony finished in fourth place. For conductors, the symphony is a great challenge and a touchstone. Semyon Bychkov will perform it with the Czech Philharmonic for a second time, in part also to record the work.

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  • Duration of the programme 1 hod 20 min


Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 9 in D major (81')


Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic Semyon Bychkov

Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall

Dress rehearsal

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Semyon Bychkov  conductor
Semyon Bychkov

Celebrating both his fifth season as Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic and his 70th birthday, Semyon Bychkov will celebrate his birthday with three concerts in November pairing Beethoven’s Fifth with Shostakovich’s Fifth. It is a season which opens in Prague with the official concert to mark the Czech Republic’s Presidency of the EU and continues with concert performances of Dvořák’s Rusalka as part of the Dvořákova Prague International Music Festival. Later in the season, Bychkov will conduct Rusalka at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Bychkov's tenure at the Czech Philharmonic was initiated in 2018 with concerts in Prague, London, New York and Washington marking the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovak independence. With the culmination of The Tchaikovsky Project in 2019, Bychkov and the Orchestra turned their focus to Mahler. In 2022, Pentatone has already released two discs in the ongoing complete symphonic cycle – Mahler’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.

Bychkov's repertoire spans four centuries. The unique combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy ensure that his performances are highly anticipated. In addition to being a guest with the major orchestras and opera houses across Europe and the US, Bychkov holds honorary titles with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms – and the Royal Academy of Music from whom he recently received an Honorary Doctorate. In 2015, he was named "Conductor of the Year’ by the International Opera Awards.

Bychkov began recording for Philips in 1989 and released discs with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Royal Concertgebouw, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. Subsequently a series of benchmark recordings with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne included a complete cycle of Brahms Symphonies, together with works by Strauss, Mahler, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Verdi, Glanert and Höller. His 1992 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was BBC’s Radio 3’s Building a Library recommended recording (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 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, he 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 in 1975. He returned in 1989 as Principal Guest Conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic and, the same year, was named Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris. In 1997, Bychkov was appointed Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, and in 1998, Chief Conductor of the Dresden Semperoper.


Gustav Mahler
Symfonie č. 9 D dur

Andante comodo
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.

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