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This iconic work changed the world of music. Igor Stravinsky’s provocative The Rite of Spring will certainly bring spring to the Rudolfinum. Only rarely does an Icelandic pianist perform here, so we look forward to hearing how Mozart is played up north as well as to the symphony Prague Panoramas, inspired by Josef Sudek’s book.
Prague Panoramas, Symphony No. 2 (Czech premiere) (23')
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K 488 (26')
— Intermission —
The Rite of Spring (33')
Víkingur Ólafsson piano
Semyon Bychkov conductor
The concert will be broadcast live by Czech Radio Vltava on Friday 22 April at 19:30.
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.
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.
The British composer and teacher Julian Anderson is one of the most acclaimed and influential creative figures of his generation. He studied composition under John Lambert, Alexander Goehr, and Tristan Murail, important representatives of British and French contemporary music. Anderson’s music is based on spectralism, and it exhibits elements of the folklore of eastern Europe, especially from Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. Anderson’s father’s family came from Lithuania, but the composer himself was born in the United Kingdom. In 2014 the English National Opera gave the successful premiere of his music drama Thebans, and in 2016 Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic gave the world premiere of his composition Incantesimi. A year later Ilan Volkov conducted the premiere of his piano concerto titled The Imaginary Museum with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Anderson was inspired to write his Symphony No. 2 “Prague Panoramas” in 2005 when he attended a photography exhibition at a London gallery. One exhibit was Josef Sudek’s book of black-and-white photographs titled Praha Panoramatická (Panoramic Prague). The iconic work, published in 1959, enchanted the composer. He was so thrilled by Prague and its scenery that he began imagining them in music: “It has a sweep and trajectory to it, like listening to a symphony. I realised then that if I ever wrote music inspired by Praha Panoramatická, it would have to be a substantial work. The grandeur of the photographs themselves almost suggested orchestral sounds and textures.”
For a while, Anderson set the idea aside to work on other compositions, but when his friend Semyon Bychkov commissioned him to write a new symphonic work to perform with the Czech Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Orchestra, the theme fully awakened in him. Although he had never been in Prague (and the subsequent closing of the borders because of the Covid pandemic prevented him from making a visit), he began writing the work based on Czech motifs. His knowledge of Czech music is exceptional by British standards: thanks to his parents’ avid listening, from his childhood he heard all of the major works of Smetana, Dvořák, and Janáček, later he was enchanted by Martinů, and he now has a very good overview of contemporary Czech music. When writing his new symphony, he was also unexpectedly inspired by the Honest Guide to Prague on the YouTube channel of Janek Rubeš and Honza Mikulka. In fact, it happened twice: “They caught my attention by a project to remove many of the ‘love locks’ from Prague’s Charles Bridge. The locks that surrounded the statue of St John of Nepomuk inspired them to do crowdfunding for the bell at Saint Gall’s Church in Prague’s lesser town, where Saint John of Nepomuk preached. The old bell from the church had been melted down by the Nazis. The new bell was made in Innsbruck, then it was brought in a procession across Charles Bridge to St Gall’s Church. I analysed the sound spectrum of that bell, and that gave me some of the harmonies for the same movement. You can also hear a real bell in the percussion with the same pitch as the so-called ‘Honest Guide Bell’,” he added in a conversation for the Czech Philharmonic magazine.
Later, he learned a Czech folk song from the YouTube guide: “Another thing Rubeš and Mikula did was to replant grass in the square opposite the Dancing House. Because of all the tourists taking photographs of the Dancing House, the grass had become barren; it was just dust. It was at the worst point of the pandemic, and I must say there was something symbolic in the new grass in the middle of the square. And Rubeš sang the popular children song Travička zelená, which is not the world’s most complex tune, but I was attracted by the words and by the simplicity of the tune. But it’s not so recognizable I think.” To reassure our more conservative listeners, we would also mention one very important source of inspiration that they will hear more prominently in the symphony Prague Panoramas: the Saint Wenceslas Chorale, which Anderson has also known since childhood, and which has strongly bonded him to the Czech musical tradition. “I have known it for a long time because my father had an old Supraphon recording when I was a boy. I did not know the words, but I liked the melody.”
In the spring of 1786 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was very busy. Since October of the year before, he had been hard at work on The Marriage of Figaro, a new Italian comic opera for which he had high hopes, as well as the comedy The Impresario, a singspiel in German. He could not earn a living just from writing such works, however, so during Lent, when operas were not performed, he regularly gave subscription concerts at the Burgtheater and appeared as the main composer and performer. As an attraction, he often performed brand new piano concertos. The most intensive period of this activity was from February 1784 until March 1786, when he wrote and played 11 concertos.
In 1786 during Lent, Mozart gave performances of his 22nd, 23rd, and 24th piano concertos. He completed the Piano Concert in E flat major, K 482, in December 1785, the Piano Concerto in A major, K 488, on 2 March 1786, and the Piano Concerto in C minor, K 491, just two weeks later. These three works differ significantly from previous concertos in terms of their instrumentation—in them, Mozart first employed clarinets, which were newly establishing themselves, in place of oboes. The clarinets have a darker timbre that blends better with the strings. Unlike the other two concertos, the Concerto in A major uses no trumpets or tympani, and its atmosphere is more intimate, especially in the first two movements. In the finale in the usual rondo form, the atmosphere alternates between jubilation and tender poignancy. The Concerto in A major is the work of a 30-year-old composer, but the music makes the impression of mastery and maturity in every respect. But with Mozart, this is not surprising in the least—he had just five years of life remaining to create the rest of his masterworks.
In 1912, Igor Stravinsky was also 30 years old. 59 more years of life were still ahead of him, and he was at work on his most daring work to date. He was known to all of Paris, the centre of the artistic avant-garde at the time. Paris is also where the progressive Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev had been working since 1909. His ensemble’s productions of Stravinsky’s ballets The Firebird and Petrushka had been the talk of Paris, but the greatest event was yet to come. On 29 May 1913, the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées gave the premiere of his third ballet, The Rite of Spring, subtitled Picture of Pagan Russia. A riot ensued, pitting the disapproving, disgusted conservative part of the audience against enthusiastic progressives. Nothing would ever be the same again—not only the music, but also the choreography and costumes differed from anything that had come before.
“The idea of The Rite of Spring came to me while I was still composing Firebird,” recalled Igor Stravinsky 45 years after the work’s premiere in his book Conversations. “I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” In the summer of 1911 in Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), Stravinsky signed a contract with Diaghilev for the composing of the last of his three early ballets. He worked on the composition in 1911 and 1912, and he made the final revisions in March 1913. To prepare himself to compose the music, Stravinsky joined the stage designer and scenario author Nicholas Roerich, who was also an archaeologist, on a trip to the Russian town Talashkino near Smolensk to study the rituals of Slavic tribes at a local centre for the folk arts. Rather than using specific folk themes, they were interested in archetypes—the mystical, wild, primitive, and uncivilised—that they would present in opposition to the bourgeois conventions of the day and to excessive sensitivity in the arts.
Stravinsky did not borrow any specific Russian folk songs, but The Rite of Spring is still the high point of his creative period under the influence of folklore. The only actual folk melody in The Rite of Spring is played by the bassoon at the very beginning, but the composer later said that the tune was not Russian—it supposedly came from an anthology of Lithuanian folk music that he found in Warsaw. In 1943, Stravinsky’s contemporary Béla Bartók, himself a folklore enthusiastic, called The Rite of Spring “the apotheosis of the music of rural Russia”, and about the ballet he declared: “Rhythmic cells that contract and expand can be found commonly in the music of Russia and eastern Europe.”
For Stravinsky, the character of the theme opened up incredible musical possibilities, particularly in the use of the power of elementary rhythm with the whole orchestra acting as a gigantic percussion instrument employing fierce rhythmic pulsation, polyrhythm, and the rapid alternation of metres. Later, Stravinsky recalled playing the beginning of the composition for Diaghilev for the first time at the piano. “Diaghilev asked if those repeated chords would go on much longer. And I answered ‘until the end, my dear’” Also in terms of tonality, The Rite of Spring went beyond tradition with hints of bitonality and tritonality, as Stravinsky superimposes chords separated by as little as a semitone.
Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography was also in keeping with the totally revolutionary conception of the music. The dancers’ primitive movements were entirely contrary to the aesthetic ideals of classical ballet. In hindsight, the choreography and Nijinsky’s rather inadequate comprehension of the innovative music could be chiefly blamed for the failure of the work’s premiere. A year later, a concert performance of The Rite of Spring in Paris met with public acclaim, and the work became a definitive milestone on the path towards modern music.