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Czech Philharmonic • Semyon Bychkov


When Richard Strauss composed his Burleske for piano and orchestra aged of 21, famous pianists called it excessively virtuosic and unplayable, but pianist Kirill Gerstein can definitely handle it. The piece will be an introduction to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, a major work of the orchestral repertoire that never ceases to fascinate.

Subscription series B | Duration of the programme 1 hour 45 minutes

Programme

Richard Strauss
Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra (17')

— Intermission —

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (68')
Trauermarsch. In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt (At a measured pace. Strict. Like a funeral procession.)
Stürmisch bewegt. Mit größter Vehemenz (Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence)
Scherzo. Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (Strong and not too fast)
Adagietto. Sehr langsam (Very slow)
Rondo – Finale. Allegro

Performers

Bertrand Chamayou piano

Kirill Gerstein piano

Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • Semyon Bychkov

Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall

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Price from 290 to 1400 Kč Tickets and contact information

Reservation of seats for current subscribers:
until 3 June 2024, 20.00
Sale of individual tickets for subscription concerts:
from 10 June 2024, 10.00
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from 11 September 2024, 10.00

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Tel.: +420 227 059 227
E-mail: info@czechphilharmonic.cz

Customer service is available on weekdays from 9.00 am to 6.00 pm.

 

Performers

Kirill Gerstein  piano, artistic director

Kirill Gerstein

Born in the territory of the former Soviet Union, the pianist Kirill Gerstein studied in the USA, Spain, and Hungary, and at present he lives in Berlin. Today an American citizen, he represents something like an intersection of the interpretive traditions that he absorbed while maturing as a pianist, taking inspiration from them to create a musical language of his own. Besides his geographical mobility, he also moves freely between historical periods: his repertoire includes works of the traditional canon and contemporary music. He also grew up with jazz.

It was jazz that took him to the Berklee College of Music as the youngest student in the school’s history at 14 years of age. Acting as an intermediary was the jazz legend Gary Burton, whom Gerstein had met in Saint Petersburg. In Boston, he studied jazz and classical piano for several years before deciding ultimately for the career of a classical pianist and heading for New York’s Manhattan School of Music. After graduating, he further broadened his interpretive horizons under Dmitri Bashkirov at the Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia in Madrid and under Ferenc Rados in Budapest. At that time, he began appearing on concert stages, helped by winning the famed Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. 

He built up the reputation of a world-class pianist known for advanced technique, intelligent interpretation, and careful reading of scores. As a soloist, he appears with the world’s top ensembles, in the 2023/24 season performing for example with the orchestras of the Leipzig Gewandhaus and the Zurich Tonhalle, the Orchestre national de France, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala and giving recitals at such venues as Carnegie Hall and Vienna’s Konzerthaus. 

He is known for interpreting contemporary music, having even used the money from the Gilmore Artist Award to commission new works. He is associated in particular with the composer Thomas Adès, who composed his Piano Concerto for Gerstein, whose recording of the work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra received a 2020 Grammy nomination and won a Gramophone Award. In 2021 they together received the International Classical Music Award for Gerstein’s recording of Adès’s solo piano compositions and his music for two pianos, which they recorded together.

Another piano concerto dedicated to Gerstein was written by Thomas Larcher. That is the work that Gerstein was to have performed in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic in 2021, but because of measures to the limit the spread of the Coronavirus, the concert was only streamed, and the programme was changed to Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which will be heard again today at the Rudolfinum. Gerstein is tied to the Czech Philharmonic by years of collaboration dating back to 2012 when the orchestra was still led by Jiří Bělohlávek, and continuing with many more visits to Prague, performances on tour in Europe and America, and a recording of Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos.

Gerstein is passing on his experience to piano students at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music in Berlin and at the Kronberg Academy. Under the auspices of the latter institution, he has made a series of online seminars with the title “Kirill Gerstein invites…”, debating with such important figures from the world of music as Thomas Adès, Kaija Saariaho, and Sir Antonio Pappano.

Semyon Bychkov  conductor

Semyon Bychkov

In the 2023/2024 season, Semyon Bychkov’s programmes centred on Dvořák’s last three symphonies, the concertos for piano, violin and cello, and three overtures: In Nature’s Realm, Carnival Overture, and Othello. In addition to conducting at Prague’s Rudolfinum, Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic took the all Dvořák programmes to Korea and across Japan with three concerts at Tokyo’s famed Suntory Hall. Later, in spring, an extensive European tour took the programmes to Spain, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and France and, at the end of year, the Year of Czech Music 2024 will culminate with three concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York. As well as featuring Dvořák’s concertos for piano, violin and cello, the programmes will include three poems from Smetana’s Má vlast, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass for which the orchestra will be joined by the Prague Philharmonic Choir. 

Bychkov’s inaugural season with the Czech Philharmonic was celebrated with an international tour that took the orchestra from performances at home in Prague to concerts in London, New York, and Washington. The following year saw the completion of The Tchaikovsky Project – the release of a 7-CD box set devoted to Tchaikovsky’s symphonic repertoire – and a series of international residencies. In his first season with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov also instigated the commissioning of 14 new works which have subsequently been premiered by the Czech Philharmonic and performed by orchestras across Europe and in the United States.

As well as the focus on Dvořák’s music, Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic are exploring the symphonies of Mahler as part of PENTATONE’s ongoing complete Mahler cycle. The first symphonies in the cycle – Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 5 were released in 2022, followed in 2023 by Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”. Last season’s highlights included performances of Mahler’s Third Symphony in Prague and Baden-Baden, and during the 2024/2025 season, Bychkov will conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with the orchestra in Prague, New York, and Toronto, and Symphony No. 8 in Prague.

While especially recognised for his interpretations of the core repertoire, Bychkov has built strong and lasting relationships with many extraordinary contemporary composers including Luciano Berio, Henri Dutilleux, and Maurizio Kagel. More recent collaborations include those with Julian Anderson, Bryce Dessner, Detlev Glanert, Thierry Escaich, and Thomas Larcher whose works he has premiered with the Czech Philharmonic, as well as with the Concertgebouworkest, the Vienna, Berlin, New York and Munich Philharmonic Orchestras, Cleveland Orchestra, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

In common with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov has one foot firmly in the culture of the East and one 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-1980s. Singled out at the age of five for an extraordinarily privileged musical education, 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 won the influential Rachmaninoff Conducting Competition. Bychkov left the former Soviet Union when he was denied the prize of conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic.

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 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 in 1998, 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 bohème, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov each won the prestigious Premio Abbiati. In Vienna, he has conducted new productions of Strauss’ Daphne, Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal, and Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, as well as revivals of Strauss’ Elektra and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; while in London, he made his operatic 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, Strauss’ Elektra and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Madrid. He returned to Bayreuth to conduct a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in summer 2024.

Bychkov’s combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy has ensured that his performances are highly anticipated. In the UK, the warmth of his relationships is reflected in honorary titles at the Royal Academy of Music and the BBC Symphony Orchestra – with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms. In Europe, he tours with the Concertgebouworkest and Munich Philharmonic, as well as being a guest of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Orchestre National de France, and Orchestra dell’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 has recorded extensively 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 (Symphonies 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 1992 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with the Orchestre de Paris 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.”

In 2015, Semyon Bychkov was named Conductor of the Year by the International Opera Awards. He received an Honorary Doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music in July 2022 and the award for Conductor of the Year from Musical America in October 2022.

Bychkov was one of the first musicians 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 the 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.

Compositions

Richard Strauss
Burleske for piano and orchestra in D minor

Burleske from 1885 is Strauss’s only work for piano and orchestra. That year Richard Strauss became assistant Kapellmeister to Hans von Bülow, the principal Kapellmeister of the Court Theater in Meiningen, Thuringia. Another factor in the twenty-one-year-old composer’s creative development was his acquaintance with the violinist of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, Alexander Ritter, the husband of one of Richard Wagner’s nieces. Through him Strauss became more familiar with Wagner’s ideas and the music of Franz Liszt. Above all, however, Burleske shows the unmistakable influence of Johannes Brahms, who came to Meiningen at that time to conduct a concert featuring his compositions. Strauss later wrote that since his meeting with Brahms, “he no longer hesitated to use a pleasing melody in his compositions”. Strauss intended the solo part in Burleske for Hans von Bülow, who was equally renowned as a pianist. The latter, however, rejected the work as “un-pianistic” and, above all, unplayable because the hand span was too much for him – Bülow was a small man with small hands and was aware of his limitations. It was finally premiered on 21 June 1890 at the Eisenach Festival by Eugen d’Albert, Liszt’s pupil and then much celebrated virtuoso, in the same concert as the premiere of Strauss’s symphonic poem Tod und Verklärung. “There are enormous technical and rhythmic difficulties for the soloist which demand the whole man,” wrote a critic. “It is an original, jocular work with arabesque-like twists that do not allow the listener’s attention to waver even for a moment.” In Burleske, there is already the parodic, ironic element so typical of Strauss, a deliberate exaggeration of the conventions used in Romantic virtuoso concertos. We can hear hints of motifs that would later become characteristic of Strauss, such as the mocking sounds of the flutes as we know them from his symphonic poem Till Eulenspiegel and the waltz rhythms; the composer’s sense of the art of instrumentation is already evident there. The main theme of Burleske is presented by the timpani, which continue to play an important role; their motif recurs throughout the twenty-minute piece, forming a sonic and rhythmic counterpart to the piano. The quiet conclusion after the last thunderous cascade is the opposite of the built-up finale, an effect usually applied in instrumental concertos.

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 5 in C Sharp Minor

Gustav Mahler completed Symphony No. 5 in the summer of 1902 at his summer home in Maiernigg in Carinthia and spent the next two years refining its instrumentation. This composition is another manifestation of Mahler’s innovation in the concept of form. The five-movement symphony is divided into three parts. The first two movements, linked through their thematic material, constitute the first part of the symphony (so the first movement can be seen as an exposition, i.e., introduction to the whole symphony, and the second movement as the first movement proper). The Scherzo in the center constitutes the second part. The third part consists of the last two movements. The frequently performed Adagietto is scored for strings and harp only; it is Mahler’s declaration of love to his wife Alma. It functions as a kind of intermezzo before the final movement. Mahler also does not follow the classical convention in his choice of the tonal plan, which is why he refused to include the key in the title. In a letter to the publisher Peters he wrote: “From the order of the movements (where the usual first movement now comes second) it is difficult to speak of a key for the ‘whole Symphony’, and to avoid misunderstandings the key should best be omitted. The main movement (No. 2) is in A minor, the Andante (No. 1) is in C sharp minor. Symphonies are named after the main movement – but only if it stands first, which has always been the case – with the exception of this work.”

The symphony was premiered on 18 October 1904 under the composer’s baton in Cologne, then on 20 February 1905 in Berlin. On 2 March 1905 it was first performed in Prague by the orchestra of the New German Theater under Leo Blech, and on 5 March, Mahler personally conducted it in Amsterdam. On the day of the Prague concert the press warned: “The audience is urged to take their seats before the beginning (starting at half past seven), as the first two movements of the symphony will be played without interruption and no one will be admitted.” The reviews pointed out that Mahler “began his artistic activity in the local theater [in Prague] and wanted to be considered half at home here.” It was noted that Mahler was influenced by Wagner (the first movement’s funeral march was compared to Siegfried’s death scene from Götterdämmerung), and, as regards the scherzo movement, by Anton Bruckner. The Adagietto was liked the most, but in the view of one of the critics, the overly complicated polyphonic technique in the final movement made too many demands on the listener. Bruno Walter, Mahler’s follower and the future great promoter of his work, expressed the same opinion after the Berlin premiere: “It was the first and I think the only time that I was not satisfied with a performance of Mahler’s work. The instrumentation of the complicated contrapuntal tangle is hard to follow, and Mahler himself complained to me that he was still unable to achieve perfection with the orchestra.” The composer returned to the Symphony No. 5 again in the year of his death and only then, as noted by Bruno Walter, did he consider it complete.

All of Mahler’s symphonies are essentially programmatic works: the First Symphony originally bore the title “Titan” (which Mahler later discarded), while his Second and Fourth Symphonies contain a vocal component that provides guidance. Especially after his experience with the First Symphony, Mahler refrained from specifying the content and did not provide any program for the Fifth Symphony, which made it difficult for even the experienced listeners on first hearing. The writer and music historian Romain Rolland, who attended a performance of the symphony on 21 May 1905 in Strasbourg, wrote: “He wished to prove that he could write pure music, and to make his claim surer he refused to have any explanation of his composition published in the concert program […]; he wished it, therefore, to be judged from a strictly musical point of view. It was a dangerous ordeal for him.” Mahler’s music has often taken on additional context in conjunction with other artistic modes: the powerfully emotional Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, for example, accompanies the film directed by Luchino Visconti based on Thomas Mann’s short story Death in Venice.

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