Music of Gustav Mahler will open the 123rd season of the Czech Philharmonic. The newly appointed chief conductor and music director Semyon Bychkov will conduct Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, with Christianne Karg and Elisabeth Kulman performing the vocal parts. Prague Philharmonic Choir will be lead by Lukáš Vasilek.
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (“Resurrection”)
Prague Philharmonic Choir
The Prague Philharmonic Choir (PPC) is a leading European vocal ensemble, and as one of the Czech Republic´s foremost artistic institutions operates under the trusteeship of the Czech Ministry of Culture. In the course of the choir´s long history since its foundation in 1935, it has been directed by a succession of some of the most distinguished Czech choirmasters (including among others Jan Kühn, Josef Veselka and Pavel Kühn). Since 2007 its principal choirmaster has been Lukáš Vasilek.
The PPC´s repertoire is centered primarily around oratorio and cantata works. In their presentation, the choir has worked with eminent international orchestras (e.g. the Czech Philharmonic, Berliner Philharmoniker, Israel Philharmonic, St Petersburg Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden or Wiener Symphoniker, among others), and conductors (including Daniel Barenboim, Jiří Bělohlávek, Christoph Eschenbach, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Manfred Honeck, Jakub Hrůša, Tomáš Netopil, Gianandrea Noseda, Philippe Jordan, Fabio Luisi, Zubin Mehta or Sir Simon Rattle). Beyond its standard choral repertoire, the PPC is likewise active in the domain of opera, working regularly with the National Theatre in Prague, and since 2010 holding the status of choir in residence at the opera festival of Bregenz, Austria.
Apart from these commitments, the PPC engages in a number of its own projects. Since 2011 it has organized its own choral concert series in Prague, with a programme focused notably on presentations of less well known choral works, either a cappella or with chamber-scale instrumental accompaniment. The PPC has taken some of these choral projects abroad (including among other occasions its tours in the USA and Mexico in 2014, and in Russia in 2018). The choir regards as an inseparable part of its activity educational endeavours targeting the young generations. In this context, it has been involved in organizing a Choral Academy for students of singing, a project aimed at enabling young artists to acquire practical skills through work with a professional vocal ensemble; and with focus on young children, running a series of educational concerts and a programme of on-the-spot singing workshops in schools.
The PPC has to its credit an extensive discography, with many titles released by major international labels (e.g., Decca Classics, Deutsche Grammophon, Sony Classical and Supraphon). In recent years the choir has taken part in several unique recording projects, two of them in association with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The first of these, a recording of Antonín Dvořák´s Stabat Mater (Decca, 2017), with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting, received the prestigious Diapason d´or de l´année award for the year´s best album in the sacred music category. The second, a recording of Bohuslav Martinů´s The Epic of Gilgamesh (Supraphon, 2017), under the baton of Manfred Honeck, won several awards in the United Kingdom, plus another Diapason d´or. The album featuring Bohuslav Martinů´s Kytice (Supraphon, 2017), on which the PPC collaborated with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tomáš Netopil, was cited as recording of the month by the prestigious British web magazine MusicWeb International. Its recording of Bohuslav Martinů´s chamber cantatas (Supraphon, 2016) scored top rankings in the influential British magazines, Gramophone (Editor´s Choice) and BBC Music Magazine (Choral & Song Choice), in the latter along with nomination for its annual award in the choral music category.
The PPC´s many commitments in the 2018/2019 season include among others concert appearances at the Dvořák Prague, Beethovenfest Bonn and Prague Spring festivals, a tour in Belgium, a performance in New York´s Carnegie Hall (Mahler´s Symphony No. 2, with the Czech Philharmonic and its principal conductor, Semyon Bychkov; this will be followed up by the recording of the same symphony for Decca Classics), and further work with the Israel Philharmonic, this time under the baton of Manfred Honeck. The PPC´s 2018/2019 concert season will be rounded off by a concert at the Smetana Litomyšl Festival, where it will perform with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev Mussorgsky´s opera Boris Godunov; and finally, appearances, for the tenth time already, at the opera festival of Bregenz, Austria.
Lukáš Vasilek, principal conductor of the Prague Philharmonic Choir (PPC), studied conducting at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and musicology at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. For eleven seasons from 1998 he was conductor of the Foerster Female Chamber Choir, and between 2005 and 2007 was also second choirmaster of the Prague National Theatre´s opera chorus.
He took up his post at the helm of the PPC in 2007. Apart from preparing and conducting the choir´s a cappella concert productions, he has been building up the PPC´s repertoire set for participation in large-scale cantata, oratorio and opera projects, working with leading international conductors (Barenboim, Bělohlávek, Eschenbach, Honeck, Hrůša, Jordan, Luisi, Mehta, Noseda or Rattle, among others) and orchestras (including the Berliner Philharmoniker, Czech Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, St Petersburg Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden or Wiener Symphoniker). Since 2010 the PPC under Vasilek´s direction has guest appeared regularly at the opera festival in Bregenz, Austria.
Lukáš Vasilek is signed under numerous recordings made by the PPC for various major labels, including Decca Classics, Deutsche Grammophon, Sony Classical and Supraphon. In 2016 the last mentioned of these issued an album of Bohuslav Martinů´s cantatas which was nominated for the BBC Music Magazine´s annual award in the choral category, among other plaudits.
In 2010 Lukáš Vasilek formed the Martinů Voices vocal ensemble whose repertoire he has focused primarily on 20th- and 21st-century choral music. He is likewise occasionally active as an orchestra conductor.
Born in Feuchtwangen, Bavaria, Christiane Karg studied singing at the Salzburg Mozarteum and at the Music Conservatory in Verona. She is a member of the ensemble of the Frankfurt Opera where her roles include Susanna, Musetta, Pamina, Servilia, Zdenka (Arabella) and the title role of La Calisto. She returns to Frankfurt this season to sing Mélisande in a new Claus Guth production of Pelléas et Mélisande and for her role debut as Adèle (Die Fledermaus). In 2006 she made her auspicious debut at the Salzburg Festival and has returned to sing Amor in Orfeo ed Euridice with Riccardo Muti and Zerlina in Don Giovanni with Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
She is a regular guest at the Theater an der Wien where she has sung Ismene in Mitridate and Telaire in Castor and Pollux. At the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich she has sung Ighino in Palestrina; at the Komische Oper Berlin, Musetta in La bohème and Norina in Don Pasquale; and at the Opera de Lille, Anne Trulove in The Rake’s Progress. In 2010/2011 she sang Poppea in Lʼincoronazione di Poppea with Glyndebourne Touring Opera. She will make her debut at the Glyndebourne Festival this season singing the role of Aricie in Hippolyte et Aricie.
A prestigious concert singer, Christiane Karg has recently appeared with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien, Daniel Harding and the Dresden Staatskapelle, Yannick Nézet-Séguim and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Marek Janowski and the OSR, and Laurence Equilbey at the Salzburg Festival. She has also sung with Emmanuel Krivine in Paris, Josep Pons in Madrid, Paul McCreesh in London and Paris (Haydnʼs Seasons), Jonathan Cohen and Les Arts Florissants in Paris, and Thomas Hengelbrock for the opening of the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival (Solveig in Peer Gynt).
Christiane Karg is a committed and distinguished recitalist and has made excellent recital debuts at the Vienna Musikverein, Schwarzenberg Schubertiade, Wigmore Hall and Edinburgh Festival. Other recent appearances include the Mozarteum Salzburg, Philharmonie Essen, Philharmonie Köln, Schwetzinger Festspiele, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, and Innsbruck. In 2012/2013 she made recital debuts at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Konzerthaus Wien, Oper Frankfurt, and Musikfest Stuttgart.
Newly appointed as Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov will assume the title at the beginning of the 2018/19 season. Born in Leningrad in 1952, Bychkov emigrated to the United States in 1975 and has been based in Europe since the mid-1980’s. In common with the Orchestra, Bychkov has one foot firmly in the cultures both of the East and the West.
Conducting the Czech Philharmonic for the opening of the 2017 Smetana Litomyšl Festival, Hospodářské noviny wrote of the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini: “the Czech Philharmonic is currently on excellent form and trusts Semyon Bychkov. And, being battle-hardened from working around the world with the best orchestras on the planet, he gives the Philharmonic players the room to develop their musical potential. The result is a unique musical creation.”
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, both in Prague’s Rudolfinum and abroad. The first fruit of The Tchaikovsky Project – a recording of Symphony No. 6 coupled with the Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture – was released by Decca in October 2016, and was followed in August 2017 by the release of the Manfred Symphony. The Tchaikovsky Project culminates in 2019 with residencies in 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.
Semyon Bychkov won the Rachmaninov Conducting Competition when he was 20 years old. Two years later, having been denied his prize of conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, he left the former Soviet Union where, aged five, he was singled out for an extraordinarily privileged education in music. Initially studying piano, Bychkov was later selected to study at the Glinka Choir School where he received his first conducting lesson aged 13. Four years later he was accepted at the Leningrad Conservatory as a student of the legendary Ilya Musin.
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, had taken off when a series of high-profile cancellations 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 repertoire is wide-ranging both in the concert hall and in the opera house. 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 Jenufa, Schubert’s Fierrabras, Puccini’s La bohème, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov were awarded the prestigious Premio Abbiati. He recently conducted Wagner’s Parsifal at the Wiener Staatsoper, and will return in 2018 with the same opera. Other new productions in Vienna include Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Daphne, Wagner’s Lohengrin 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.
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, the Vienna Philharmonic and Munich Philharmonic, as well as being an annual guest of the Berlin Philharmonic, 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.
Recognised for his interpretations of the core repertoire, Bychkov has worked closely with many extraordinary contemporary composers including Luciano Berio, Henri Dutilleux and Maurizio Kagel. In recent seasons he has worked closely with Renée Staar, Thomas Larcher, Richard Dubignon, Detlev Glanert and Julian Anderson, conducting premières of their works with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw and BBC Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms.
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, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. Subsequently a series of benchmark recordings - the result of his 13-year collaboration (1997-2010) with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne – include a complete cycle of Brahms Symphonies, and 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), 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.
Semyon Bychkov was named 2015’s Conductor of the Year by the International Opera Awards.
Elisabeth Kulman studied voice with Helena Lazarska at the Vienna Music University, made her debut as Pamina in 2001 at the Volksoper in Vienna and enjoyed early success as a soprano. Since 2005 Elisabeth Kulman has been singing the major parts of the mezzo and alto repertoire. Since 2010 Elisabeth Kulman has been working as a freelance artist. She is a much sought-after soloist in the metropolitan centres of the music world: Vienna, Paris, London, Berlin, Tokyo, Moscow, etc. She works regularly with world-class orchestras and conductors such as Zubin Mehta, Kirill Petrenko, Marek Janowski or Franz Welser-Möst. She enjoyed a particularly close collaboration with Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Since 2015 Elisabeth Kulman has been focusing her artistic activities on recitals (together with her longtime accompanist Eduard Kutrowatz), concerts and operas in concert. She is especially devoted to unconventional projects: “Mussorgsky Dis-Covered” with an international jazz quartet, “Mahler Lieder” and “Wer wagt mich zu höhnen?” with the ensemble Amarcord Wien as well as “Hungaro Tune” with symphony orchestra and jazz soloists. Her latest solo programme “La femme c’est moi” features pieces from Carmen up to the Beatles.
Although Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) had begun his work on the Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Resurrection” in 1888, back when he was second Kapellmeister at the Opera in Leipzig, he only finished it in summer 1894. Full of enthusiasm, he played the first movement, Allegro maestoso (in which Titan, the hero of his first symphony, is borne to his grave) to Hans von Bülow, then conductor of Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, whose acquaintance he made in 1891 after he became the first Kapellmeister at the Hamburg Stadttheater. According to Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Mahler’s performance did not exactly turn out as expected: “Bülow allegedly kept stopping his ears and in the end had said: ‘If this is still music, then I do not understand music at all.’” However, Bülow respected Mahler highly as a conductor. He wrote to his daughter: “Recently I heard Siegfried conducted by him and felt deep admiration for the way in which – without a single orchestral rehearsal – he forced those rascals to dance to his tune.”
Although Mahler had a stronger position in Hamburg than in Budapest, his work in the theatre was making such demands on his time that it was almost two years before he could return to work on the Second Symphony, which he did during the theatre holidays in 1893. He spent the time in Steinbach am Attersee, near Salzburg and composed two movements: the second – a fervently lyrical Andante moderato in A-flat major, reminiscing of the blissful moments in the youth of the dead hero – and the third, In ruhig fliessender Bewegung, an instrumental treatment of the song St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish, composed a little earlier. In a letter of 17 February 1897 to the critic Arthur Seidl, Mahler wrote the following about the inception of the concluding fifth movement, which originally followed immediately after the third: “In the last movement of my Second I simply had to go through the whole of world literature, including the Bible, in search of the redeeming Word. The way in which I was inspired to do this is deeply significant and characteristic of the nature of artistic creation. I had long contemplated bringing in the choir in the last movement, and only the fear that it would be taken as a superficial imitation of Beethoven made me hesitate again and again. Then Bülow died [on 12 February 1894 in Cairo], and I went to the memorial service. The mood in which I sat and pondered on the departed was utterly in the spirit of what I was working on at the time. Then the choir, up in the organ-loft, intoned Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale. It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for – ‘conceiving by the Holy Ghost’!” Thus, the words of Klopstock’s ode penetrated deeply into Mahler’s heart, yet they provided inspiration rather than a model to follow closely, as the composer amended and enhanced the lyrics according to his own bent, changing even the message: resurrection is certain; we have not been born in vain; we have not suffered in vain…
With the spectacular concluding movement achieved, in which the composer supplemented the sound of the orchestra with bells, but also with offstage French horns, trumpets, and timpani, the symphony seemed complete. However, Mahler realised that the sudden transition from the hopeless mood of the third movement to the purifying finale unbalanced the work. From his 1892 cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn, he chose the song Urlicht,turning it into an impressive section with an alto solo that conceptually and musically prepares the listener for the finale’s following attacca.
After a seven-year effort, Mahler finally finished the Second Symphony in July 1894. He first performed its opening three movements on 4 March 1895 in Berlin, where they were programmed thanks to Richard Strauss. The premiere of the complete work took place on 13 December, again in Berlin and conducted by the composer, but it took a long time before the public understood its greatness.
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