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Czech Philharmonic • Semyon Bychkov
Fascinating works marked by their time – that could be the title of Semyon Bychkov’s unusual programme. The Mystery of Time by Miloslav Kabeláč from the 1950s was ill-suited for that period. Viktor Ullmann wrote his melodrama in Theresienstadt before being taken to Auschwitz. Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony took 20 years to reach its final form.
The Mystery of Time, passacaglia for large orchestra, Op. 31 (24')
Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke for recitation and orchestra (25')
— Intermission —
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (45')
Thomas Quasthoff narrator
Semyon Bychkov conductor
Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall
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“This was a testament not only to Mahler, but also to Mr. Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic... this was a moving and intelligent reading of the Resurrection, dramatic in the opening and finale, sweet and playful in the inner movements, and sublime in the setting of Urlicht...”
The New York Times
Semyon Bychkov's tenure as Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic was initiated with concerts in Prague, London, New York and Washington marking the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovak independence in 2018. Since the culmination of The Tchaikovsky Project in 2019 – a 7-CD box set released by Decca Classics and a series of international residencies – Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic have been focusing on the symphonic works of Mahler with performances and recordings scheduled both at home and abroad.
During the 2021/22 season, Mahler’s First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies will all be heard internationally including on tour at the Grafenegg Festival in Austria during the summer. The Czech Philharmonic’s 126th season’s subscription concerts in October will open with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. In the spring, a Czech Festival at Vienna’s Musikverein featuring Smetana’s Má vlast – recorded by Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic during lockdown - alongside works by Kabeláč, Dvořák, Martinů and Janáček will be followed by an extensive European tour including concerts at the Philharmonie in Berlin, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie and two concerts at London’s Barbican Centre.
Especially 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. Highlights of the new season include the German première of Larcher’s Piano Concerto with dedicatee Kirill Gerstein in Berlin, the Czech première of Bryce Dessner’s Mari and the world première of Anderson’s Prague Panoramas, also presented in Prague. The three new works are amongst fourteen commissions initiated by Bychkov at the start of his tenure with the Czech Philharmonic.
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 included 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 commitments with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov's guest conducting engagements include further performances of Mahler’s symphonies with the Orchestre de Paris, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Berlin, Oslo and LA Philharmonic Orchestras, and Strauss’s Elektra at the Opéra national de Paris.
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. His recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was recommended by BBC’s Radio 3’s Building a Library (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 2015, Semyon Bychkov was named Conductor of the Year by the International Opera Awards.
For almost four decades, German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff has set the standard on international stages, moving the hearts of countless listeners with his artistry, before he ended his outstanding career as a singer in 2012. However, he has retained his close ties to singing and music as a teacher at the Hanns Eisler Music Academy in Berlin and in various master classes, as a recitalist and speaker at concerts, readings, and with his jazz-projects.
Quasthoff was a frequent guest of the leading orchestras like the Berlin and the Vienna Philharmonics at all major music venues, working closely with conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, James Levine, Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Simon Rattle, Helmuth Rilling, Christian Thielemann and Franz Welser-Möst. Having dedicated himself to Lied for many years, he founded the “Das Lied” International Song Competition in 2009, which will take place next time in February 2023.
Quasthoff has proved more than once during recent years that he enjoys rising to new challenges, and thus he is again doing Jazz-concerts on tour together with some internationally renowned instrumentalists: Simon Oslender (piano), Dieter Ilg (double bass) and Wolfgang Haffner (drums). They were highly acclaimed in prestigious venues such as Zurich, Vienna, Budapest, Madrid, St. Petersburg, Essen, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Rheingau Festival, Schleswig-Holstein Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Tsinandali Festival and many others.
His numerous CDs have received many awards, three of them the coveted “Grammy” award. The most recent jazz album NiceʼnʼEasy has been released in May 2018 by Sony Music. It contains a diverse programme of jazz classics with the celebrated NDR Bigband – The Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra and his trio partners Frank Chastenier, Dieter Ilg and Wolfgang Haffner.
Quasthoff received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the European Culture Prize for Music at the Dresden Frauenkirche, the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, the Herbert von Karajan Music Prize of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, and the Gold Medal of London’s Wigmore Hall. In addition, he was conferred the title of Österreichischer Kammersänger in 2009.
The Mystery of Time, passacaglia for large orchestra, Op. 31
The Mystery of Time, possibly Miloslav Kabeláč’s most frequently played work, was finished in 1957. The composition dates from almost the same time as Kabeláč’s third and fourth symphonies. The passacaglia, a historical variation form built upon an ostinato bass line, is not employed literally. It serves as an intellectual point of departure, and it has a symbolic meaning in the work—time constantly flows, and flowing with it are the constant transformations of our lives. The work’s arch form serves as a meditation on the beginning and end of being, on the events of the cosmos, and the inscrutability of its eternal order. In the composition, it is time that determines the dynamic component, building up almost from silence, then gradually dying away. The build-up is influenced by the increasing density of the orchestral writing in ever smaller rhythmic values. In 1961 the composer sent a specimen of the printed score to his teacher Karel Boleslav Jirák in Chicago for his 70th birthday, and in the enclosed letter he confessed: “I modestly regard The Mystery of Time [...] as a work in which all creative elements—musical, artistic, and human—take part equally.” The work was premiered that year on 23 October by the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of Karel Ančerl, who also performed it several times abroad and recorded it in 1964 with the Czech Philharmonic.
Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke for recitation and orchestra
Viktor Ullmann composed the melodrama The Lay of Love and Death of Christoph Cornet Rilke for reciter and piano between 4 July (Part I) and 12 July 1944 (Part II). The autograph bears the dedication “For my Elly’s birthday..., 27 September 1944, Theresienstadt”; Elly (Elisabeth) was Ullmann’s third wife. At the end of that month, Ullmann’s melodrama was performed in Theresienstadt, and three weeks later the composer was murdered in an Auschwitz gas chamber, and his wife with him, as was Ullmann’s son from his second marriage.
The inspiration for Rilke’s epic poem is not surprising. During the interwar period, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) was one of the most read poets whose verses were often set to music, and with his position between German and Czech culture, he was attractive to speakers of both languages. In its day, this account of the tragic tale of Cornet Rilke was familiar to all literate people and had almost a cult following. The action of the poem, first published in 1912, is set during the wars with the Turks. It is a premonition of the society of the Weimar Republic on the eve of the First World War.
The choice of melodrama as the genre was no coincidence. Ullmann was interested in the relationship between music and words in modern music, and he was intimately familiar with Schoenberg’s “Sprechgesang”. In 1921 he took part in rehearsals for the Prague premiere of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, which includes a recitation. Ullmann divides the work into two parts preceded by a prologue without music. Besides the usual tempo indications and performance instructions, score calls for sections of the work to be played without a break (attaca) in several places
Ullmann’s preserved short score and fragmentary full score indicate plans for an orchestral version. Henning Brauel finished the orchestration based on those sources in 1994, and the work was premiered in that form in Prague on 27 May 1995 by the Czech Philharmonic with the conductor Gerd Albrecht and the Austrian actress Erika Pluhar.
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Johannes Brahms needed a very long time to build up the courage to compose a first symphony. The embryo for a symphony became a composition for two pianos, the material of which he ultimately used for his Piano Concerto No. 1. The first drafts of the symphony date from 1862, but he let his plans mature for another fourteen years. The Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68, was first performed on 4 November 1876 in Karlsruhe with Felix Otto Dessoff conducting. After the premiere Brahms made corrections to the score and gave the work its final form in 1877. The symphony opens with a slow introduction accompanied by tympani strokes. The main theme, spanning an octave and a half, is played by the strings, while the second theme is entrusted mainly to the winds, then the third theme is again for strings. The development section mostly deals with the second and third themes, then the recapitulation is followed by a brief coda. The second movement is in ternary form, and the woodwind instruments are quite prominent. The woodwinds again play an important role in the third movement, also in ternary form. The final movement is in an entirely original two-part form. It begins with an atypical slow introduction in which the strings alternate between pizzicato and legato playing. In a linking passage marked più andante, a melody played by the French horn is passed to the flute and then to other instruments. Only thereafter does the main theme arrive, which is reminiscent of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. Not only for that reason, but also because of the work’s Beethovenian model of formal transformation and its dramatic impact, the symphony has been nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth”.