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Fascinating works marked by their time – that could be the title of Semyon Bychkov’s unusual programme. The Mystery of Time by Miloslav Kabeláč from the 1950s was ill-suited for that period. Viktor Ullmann wrote his melodrama in Theresienstadt before being taken to Auschwitz. Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony took 20 years to reach its final form.
The Mystery of Time, passacaglia for large orchestra, Op. 31 (24')
Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke for recitation and orchestra (25')
— Intermission —
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (45')
Thomas Quasthoff narrator
Semyon Bychkov conductor
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.
For almost four decades, German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff has set the standard on international stages, moving the hearts of countless listeners with his artistry, before he ended his outstanding career as a singer in 2012. However, he has retained his close ties to singing and music as a teacher at the Hanns Eisler Music Academy in Berlin and in various master classes, as a recitalist and speaker at concerts, readings, and with his jazz-projects.
Quasthoff was a frequent guest of the leading orchestras like the Berlin and the Vienna Philharmonics at all major music venues, working closely with conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, James Levine, Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Simon Rattle, Helmuth Rilling, Christian Thielemann and Franz Welser-Möst. Having dedicated himself to Lied for many years, he founded the “Das Lied” International Song Competition in 2009, which will take place next time in February 2023.
Quasthoff has proved more than once during recent years that he enjoys rising to new challenges, and thus he is again doing Jazz-concerts on tour together with some internationally renowned instrumentalists: Simon Oslender (piano), Dieter Ilg (double bass) and Wolfgang Haffner (drums). They were highly acclaimed in prestigious venues such as Zurich, Vienna, Budapest, Madrid, St. Petersburg, Essen, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Rheingau Festival, Schleswig-Holstein Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Tsinandali Festival and many others.
His numerous CDs have received many awards, three of them the coveted “Grammy” award. The most recent jazz album NiceʼnʼEasy has been released in May 2018 by Sony Music. It contains a diverse programme of jazz classics with the celebrated NDR Bigband – The Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra and his trio partners Frank Chastenier, Dieter Ilg and Wolfgang Haffner.
Quasthoff received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the European Culture Prize for Music at the Dresden Frauenkirche, the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, the Herbert von Karajan Music Prize of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, and the Gold Medal of London’s Wigmore Hall. In addition, he was conferred the title of Österreichischer Kammersänger in 2009.
The Mystery of Time, possibly Miloslav Kabeláč’s most frequently played work, was finished in 1957. The composition dates from almost the same time as Kabeláč’s third and fourth symphonies. The passacaglia, a historical variation form built upon an ostinato bass line, is not employed literally. It serves as an intellectual point of departure, and it has a symbolic meaning in the work—time constantly flows, and flowing with it are the constant transformations of our lives. The work’s arch form serves as a meditation on the beginning and end of being, on the events of the cosmos, and the inscrutability of its eternal order. In the composition, it is time that determines the dynamic component, building up almost from silence, then gradually dying away. The build-up is influenced by the increasing density of the orchestral writing in ever smaller rhythmic values. In 1961 the composer sent a specimen of the printed score to his teacher Karel Boleslav Jirák in Chicago for his 70th birthday, and in the enclosed letter he confessed: “I modestly regard The Mystery of Time [...] as a work in which all creative elements—musical, artistic, and human—take part equally.” The work was premiered that year on 23 October by the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of Karel Ančerl, who also performed it several times abroad and recorded it in 1964 with the Czech Philharmonic.
Viktor Ullmann composed the melodrama The Lay of Love and Death of Christoph Cornet Rilke for reciter and piano between 4 July (Part I) and 12 July 1944 (Part II). The autograph bears the dedication “For my Elly’s birthday..., 27 September 1944, Theresienstadt”; Elly (Elisabeth) was Ullmann’s third wife. At the end of that month, Ullmann’s melodrama was performed in Theresienstadt, and three weeks later the composer was murdered in an Auschwitz gas chamber, and his wife with him, as was Ullmann’s son from his second marriage.
The inspiration for Rilke’s epic poem is not surprising. During the interwar period, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) was one of the most read poets whose verses were often set to music, and with his position between German and Czech culture, he was attractive to speakers of both languages. In its day, this account of the tragic tale of Cornet Rilke was familiar to all literate people and had almost a cult following. The action of the poem, first published in 1912, is set during the wars with the Turks. It is a premonition of the society of the Weimar Republic on the eve of the First World War.
The choice of melodrama as the genre was no coincidence. Ullmann was interested in the relationship between music and words in modern music, and he was intimately familiar with Schoenberg’s “Sprechgesang”. In 1921 he took part in rehearsals for the Prague premiere of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, which includes a recitation. Ullmann divides the work into two parts preceded by a prologue without music. Besides the usual tempo indications and performance instructions, score calls for sections of the work to be played without a break (attaca) in several places
Ullmann’s preserved short score and fragmentary full score indicate plans for an orchestral version. Henning Brauel finished the orchestration based on those sources in 1994, and the work was premiered in that form in Prague on 27 May 1995 by the Czech Philharmonic with the conductor Gerd Albrecht and the Austrian actress Erika Pluhar.
Johannes Brahms needed a very long time to build up the courage to compose a first symphony. The embryo for a symphony became a composition for two pianos, the material of which he ultimately used for his Piano Concerto No. 1. The first drafts of the symphony date from 1862, but he let his plans mature for another fourteen years. The Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68, was first performed on 4 November 1876 in Karlsruhe with Felix Otto Dessoff conducting. After the premiere Brahms made corrections to the score and gave the work its final form in 1877. The symphony opens with a slow introduction accompanied by tympani strokes. The main theme, spanning an octave and a half, is played by the strings, while the second theme is entrusted mainly to the winds, then the third theme is again for strings. The development section mostly deals with the second and third themes, then the recapitulation is followed by a brief coda. The second movement is in ternary form, and the woodwind instruments are quite prominent. The woodwinds again play an important role in the third movement, also in ternary form. The final movement is in an entirely original two-part form. It begins with an atypical slow introduction in which the strings alternate between pizzicato and legato playing. In a linking passage marked più andante, a melody played by the French horn is passed to the flute and then to other instruments. Only thereafter does the main theme arrive, which is reminiscent of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. Not only for that reason, but also because of the work’s Beethovenian model of formal transformation and its dramatic impact, the symphony has been nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth”.