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After just half a year, the Czech Philharmonic is again playing in Essen. On the programme are Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor with Víkingur Ólafsson and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, which is about the 1905 revolution but symbolises any struggle between good and evil.
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, “The Year 1905”
Víkingur Ólafsson piano
Semyon Bychkov conductor
Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson has made a profound impact with his remarkable combination of highest level musicianship and visionary programmes. His recordings for Deutsche Grammophon – Philip Glass Piano Works (2017), Johann Sebastian Bach (2018), Debussy Rameau (2020) and Mozart & Contemporaries (2021) – captured the public and critical imagination and led to album streams of over 260 million. The Daily Telegraph called him “The new superstar of classical piano” while the New York Times dubbed him “Iceland’s Glenn Gould.”
Now one of the most sought-after artists of today, Ólafsson’s multiple awards include Gramophone magazine’s 2019 Artist of the Year, Opus Klassik Solo Recording Instrumental (twice) and Album of the Year at the 2019 BBC Music Magazine Awards. Ólafsson continues to perform with the worldʼs leading orchestras and as artist in residence at the top concert halls and festivals. He also works with some of today’s greatest composers.
A captivating communicator both on and off stage, Ólafsson’s significant talent extends to broadcast, having presented several of his own series for television and radio. He was artist in residence for three months on BBC Radio 4’s flagship arts programme, Front Row. Broadcasting live during lockdown from an empty Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík, he reached millions of listeners around the world.
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.
Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 is the only piano concerto by Robert Schumann. It came into being in a rather complicated way. In 1841 Schumann composed Fantasy (Phantasie) in A minor for Piano and Orchestra, but publishers and concert agents did not show as much interest in it as the composer had hoped. Four years later (partly at the urging of his wife, piano virtuoso Clara Schumann), he decided to expand it into a piano concerto. The Fantasy became the first movement, to which Schumann added second and third movements – Intermezzo and Allegro vivace. The complete work was premiered on 1 January 1846 by Clara Schumann as a soloist and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Ferdinand Hiller, to whom Schumann dedicated the work.
In comparison to other piano concertos of the time, Schumann’s concerto is instantly recognized as having an orchestral character. He himself wrote about it in a letter to his wife: “I have already told you about my concerto: it is a cross between a symphony, a concerto, and a grand sonata. It is clear that I cannot write a concerto for the virtuoso; I must think of something else.” The piano part together with the orchestra forms a closely interconnected whole. Listeners and critics, who were accustomed to virtuoso pieces in which the orchestra usually played only an accompanying role, greatly appreciated the concerto. But there were also those like Franz Liszt, who described the work as “a piano concerto without a piano”.
From the very beginning, the first movement is characterized by sharp changes of tempos and moods. The orchestra storms in, and this is followed by descending cascades of piano chords contrasted with a mournful melody sung by oboes, immediately repeated by the piano. The opening theme is the main building material of the whole movement. The monumental cadenza was written by Schumann himself. The brief middle movement (Intermezzo: Andante grazioso) is a lyrical dialogue between the piano and orchestra. The soloist again presents the main theme of the first movement, which moves without pause into the final movement. The energetic Allegro vivace produces a triumphant and joyful atmosphere and is characterized by a number of impressive rhythmic experiments.
In September 1956 Dmitri Shostakovich celebrated his 50th birthday. He was considered the greatest symphonist of his time and was beginning to take stock. “I think that many things repeat themselves in Russian history. Of course the same event can’t repeat itself exactly, there must be differences, but many things are repeated nevertheless. People think and act similarly in many things… I wanted to show this recurrence in the Eleventh Symphony. I wrote it in 1957 and it deals with contemporary themes even though it’s called “1905”. It is about the people who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over. That is how the impressions of my childhood and my adult life come together.” Shostakovich himself was not witness of the bloody suppression of the 1905 St Petersburg uprising, but his family discussed this event all the time. He personally experienced the October Revolution of 1917, whose 40th anniversary had just been celebrated in 1957, and throughout his life he also felt its consequences: bullying and injustice on the one hand, and bombastic tributes and platitudes on the other. He was also constantly confronted with the regime that the 1917 Revolution had established, by which he was attacked and dragged under.
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, was written in 1957 during Shostakovich’s summer stay in Komarovo near what was then Leningrad. Two themes run through the entire work – the theme introduced by the string section at the beginning of the symphony and, in contrast, the ominous timpani strokes. These leitmotifs, which constantly undergo a transformation, symbolize the historical repetition of events mentioned by the composer over the course of four movements played without a pause. Other elements include quotations from 19th-century political songs – songs of the revolutionary year 1905, as well as from Shostakovich’s other compositions. The first movement, introduced by the two contrasting themes of strings and timpani, features a melody of the song “Slushay!” (Listen!) from 1864, followed by “Arrestant” (The Prisoner) from 1857. In the second movement Shostakovich has incorporated melodies from his Ten Choruses on Texts by Revolutionary Poets from 1951; they are gradually escalating into sharp marching rhythms. The uprising breaks out, is defeated, and a deathlike silence reigns outside the Winter Palace. The third movement is a symbolic remembrance of the fallen victims, featuring the well-known funeral march of the Russian revolutionaries “You Fell Victim to a Fateful Struggle” and quotes from other revolutionary songs such as “Baikal”, “'Boldly on We March, Comrades!” and “Welcome, Free Speech”. A new revolution sprouts out of the grief for the dead, and it spreads with the other songs included in the fourth movement. The coda, again with the motif of Palace Square, anticipates a new bloodshed and warns against it.
The symphony premiered on 30 October 1957 in Moscow under Natan Rakhlin. Understandably, it was met with mixed reactions. Party leaders ranked it among the exemplary works of Socialist Realism and honored the composer with the Lenin Prize, but in circles that had already begun to shake off the chains of demagoguery it was regarded as a libation and, as far as its artistic value was concerned, as illustrative film music. After another 50 years, many details of the composer’s complicated life, sandwiched between the millstones of constant party criticism and his own convictions as an artist and human being, are now known. The symphony is now seen in the spirit which Shostakovich himself suggested – as a manifestation of the strangely turning wheel of fate, which returns many moments of development to the starting point from which humanity sets out each time to find anew the justification for its existence.