Now at the beginning of a new 5-year contract as Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov’s relationship with the Orchestra has become noticeably deeper with extraordinary performances of the great Czech masters running in parallel with a much-acclaimed Mahler cycle recorded for Pentatone, and memorable performances of Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Strauss, Schumann, and Beethoven.
Bychkov’s inaugural season with the Czech Philharmonic in 2018 was celebrated with an international tour that took the Orchestra from performances at home in Prague to concerts in London, New York, and Washington. Dvořák is a major focus throughout the 128th season – in addition to being featured in the season launch and the opening subscription concerts, Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic take Dvořák to audiences in South Korea and Japan, reprising the East Asia tour originally planned for 2020. Later in the season, the Orchestra will bring Dvořák to the major European capitals in celebration of 2024’s Year of Czech Music.
For the past three seasons, Bychkov’s work with the Czech Philharmonic has focused on the music of Gustav Mahler, with performances of the symphonies at the Rudofinum, on tour and ultimately committed to disc. Pentatone’s Mahler Cycle launched in spring 2022 with the release of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, followed by recordings of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in October and, most recently Symphony No. 2. This season Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 will be performed at the Rudolfinum and in Baden‑Baden.
Other major projects during Bychkov’s tenure include the commissioning of 14 new works – nine from Czech composers and five commissions from international composers. The symphonies of Detlev Glanert and Julian Anderson were both inspired and named after Prague, Bryce Dessner composed a tone poem inspired by the nature of the Basque Coast where Bychkov lives, and Thierry Escaich and Thomas Larcher composed piano concertos.
Bychkov’s first major initiative with the Czech Philharmonic was The Tchaikovsky Project – a 7-CD box set devoted to Tchaikovsky’s symphonic repertoire released by Decca and a series of international residencies. Last September, after giving the official concert to mark the Czech Republic’s Presidency of the EU, Bychkov and the Orchestra started the season as guests of the Dvořák Prague International Music Festival, where they gave three concert performances of Dvořák’s Rusalka.
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 Leningrad 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 Rachmaninoff Conducting Competition. He left the former Soviet Union in 1975, having been denied his prize of conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic.
By the time Bychkov returned to Leningrad 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 and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras and the Concertgebouworkest. 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 opera 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. While Principal Guest Conductor of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, his productions of Janáček’s Jenůfa, Schubert’s Fierrabras, Puccini’s La boheme, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov each won the prestigious Premio Abbiati. New productions in Vienna have included Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Daphne, Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal, and Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina; while in London, he made his operatic debut with a new production of Strauss’ Elektra, and subsequently conducted new productions of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten and Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Recent productions include Strauss’ Elektra at the Paris Opera,
Dvořák’s Rusalka at Covent Garden and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde at Teatro Real in Madrid.
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 with the Concertgebouworkest 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.
Bychkov made extensive recordings for Philips with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Concertgebouworkest, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. 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), Rachmaninoff (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). Of The Tchaikovsky Project released in 2019, BBC Music Magazine wrote: “The most beautiful orchestra playing imaginable can be heard on Semyon Bychkov’s 2017 recording with the Czech Philharmonic, in which Decca’s state-of-the‑art recording captures every detail.”
Bychkov was the first musician to express his position on the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, since when he has spoken in support of Ukraine in Prague’s Wenceslas Square; on radio and television in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Austria, the UK and the USA; written By Invitation for The Economist; and appeared as a guest on BBC World’s HARDtalk.
In October 2022, Semyon Bychkov was named Musical America’s Conductor of the Year Worldwide. Earlier in the year he received an Honorary Doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music and, in 2015 he was named Conductor of the Year by the International Opera Awards.