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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.
Symphony No. 9 in D major (81')
Semyon Bychkov conductor
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.
Beginning in 1908, Gustav Mahler was living in New York—he was the chief conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and later of the newly established New York Philharmonic as well. Nonetheless, Austria was still the place where he felt truly at home. Mahler rented an isolated house not far from the Tyrolean village Toblach, where he conceived his Ninth Symphony during the three summer months of 1909. He wrote out a continuous draft there, then he finished the orchestration back in New York. Mahler, like Beethoven, Bruckner, and Dvořák, was not able to escape the “curse” of going past nine symphonies, although he attempted to do by not numbering Das Lied von der Erde as a symphony, just in case.
Mahler was gravely ill by then, and he did not live to hear his Ninth. Bruno Walter led the Vienna Philharmonic in the symphony’s premiere in the Great Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein on 26 June 1912, the year after the composer’s death. The adherents of the Viennese avant-garde immediately grasped the work. Alban Berg called it the most beautiful thing that Mahler had ever written, and Arnold Schoenberg regarded the symphony 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 a Prague lecture about Mahler in 1912. The Prague premiere of the symphony took place on 6 November 1918 with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Otakar Ostrčil, a devoted interpreter of Mahler’s legacy. Another devotee was Alexander Zemlinsky, who led the work on 14 January 1923 with the orchestra of the New German Theatre and several more times in the 1930s with the Czech Philharmonic as a guest conductor.
Unlike the preceding Eighth Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth Symphony employs purely instrumental forces—a large orchestra with many wind and percussion instruments. The four movements have little to do with the classical symphonic form, including their peculiar sequence of keys (D major, C major, A minor, D flat major). The long, slow outer movements form an ideological and philosophical centre of gravity, and the pair of movements in their midst provide the maximum conceivable contrast with their deliberate vulgarity and grotesqueness. The scherzo movement is to be played “at the tempo of a leisurely ländler” and “rather clumsily and very coarsely”, and it has been likened to a dance of death. The third movement is subtitled “Rondo. Burleske” and is to be played “very defiantly”. Mahler dedicated it “to my brothers in Apollo”. Here, the revelry stands above an abyss, and we are treated to a feast of Mahler’s legendary orchestral artistry. However, the meditative culmination of the colossal 80-minute work is characteristically entrusted just to the intimate sound of the strings playing at the softest dynamics, fading away to nothingness and breaking all bonds with earthly life.