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Czech Phil: The Spring Stars IV • Kirill Gerstein


Concert series Spring Stars of the Czech Phil will conclude with famous piano concerto by Robert Schumann performed by pianist Kirill Gerstein and Chief Condutor Semyon Bychkov. The second half of the programme will be dedicated to Tchaikovsky and his Little Russian Symphony.

Duration of the programme 1 hour 15 minutes

Programme

Robert Schumann
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 (34')

— Intermission (10') —

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 “Little Russian“ (32')

Performers

Kirill Gerstein piano

Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Marek Eben host

Photo illustrating the event Czech Phil: The Spring Stars IV • Kirill Gerstein

Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall

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Tickets and contact information

Concert will be broadcasted on ČT art and social media of the Czech Philharmonic on 29th April at 8.15pm.

Concert will be broadcasted on ČT art and social media of the Czech Philharmonic on 29th April at 8.15pm.

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.

Marek Eben  host

Marek Eben

Marek Eben was born in 1957 in Prague. He studied music drama at the Prague Conservatoire. After finishing school, he worked at the Vítězslav Nezval Theatre in Karlovy Vary, then at the Kladno Theatre, and from 1983 to 2002 he was an ensemble member at Prague’s Studio Ypsilon Theatre. Besides acting, he also involves himself with music. He is the exclusive songwriter for the band The Eben Brothers, which has released five albums (Malé písně do tmy, 1984; Tichá domácnost, 1995; Já na tom dělám, 2002; Chlebíčky, 2008; Čas holin, 2014), and he wrote the music for the films Bizon and Hele on letí and for the television series Poste restante. He has also composed music and written texts for about 20 plays (including Matěj Poctivý – Matthew the Honest, Vosková figura – The Wax Figure, Amerika, and Othello for Studio Ypsilon and The Winter’s Tale for the National Theatre). Since 1996, he has been the moderator of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

He has worked extensively on television, serving as the moderator of various programmes such as the contest O poklad Anežky České (The Treasure of St Agnes of Bohemia), the TýTý Awards Presentation, Stardance, and the discussion programme Na plovárně (At the Swimming Pool), which won the Elsa Award in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 for the best talk show. Marek Eben has also won this prize as a moderator in 2001, 2002, 2006, and 2007. He is also the two-time overall winner of the TýTý Awards.

Compositions

Robert Schumann
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54

Allegro affettuoso
Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso 
Allegro vivace

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.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 “Little Russian“

Andante sostenuto—Allegro vivo
Andantino marziale, quasi moderato
ScherzoAllegro molto vivace
Finale. Moderato assai—Allegro vivo

The most prominent Russian Romantic composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, studied law in St. Petersburg, but was always drawn to music. He worked as a lawyer in the civil service, but soon began to study with Anton Rubinstein at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. After graduating, Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow where he began to teach music at the Moscow Conservatory, headed by Rubinstein’s brother Nikolai. However, teaching did not make him happy, he was just eking out his living. From 1876 on, his patroness Nadezhda von Meck provided him with financial support, thanks to which he could devote himself fully to composition and performance of his works. At this time, he created his most famous compositions which brought him recognition in Russia as well as in Europe: the ballets Swan Lake (1876) and Sleeping Beauty (1889), the operas Eugene Onegin (1878) and The Queen of Spades (1890) and many other orchestral, chamber and vocal pieces. He repeatedly visited Prague (1888, 1892), where he befriended Antonín Dvořák. Tchaikovsky’s swan song is Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”. He died a week after its premiere. The official cause of death was reported to be cholera, but there is much speculation that his death was suicide, allegedly committed in order to preclude the disclosure of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality.

Tchaikovsky’s composition to be heard tonight is somewhat in the shadow of his other symphonies. Conventionally oriented program directors of symphony orchestras often prefer the last three of his symphonies (Nos. 4–6) over his Symphony No. 2 “Little Russian”. This does not mean, however, that this work is not worth the attention of the public. On the contrary, it is good that we have the opportunity to listen to it at the concert tonight!

Tchaikovsky started to work on Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in G major, Op. 44 in October 1879 when he was visiting his sister’s family at their estate at Kamenka (Kamyanka) in what is today the Cherkassy Region of Ukraine. His brother-in-law, Lev Davydov, wanted Tchaikovsky to work undisturbed, and he had previously made available a separate house to him which he equipped with a piano. The composer loved the local environment and regularly came to visit.

The concerto’s first movement is in the traditional sonata form with two contrasting themes (the second musical idea appears after the first solo cadenza), but it has an unusually extensive development. Another special feature can be found in the second movement, Andante non troppo, where piano as the solo instrument is joined by violin and later also by cello. The orchestra, limited just about to the strings, plays only a minimal role in this movement. The brisk final movement has tested the technical competencies of many generations of soloists. Tchaikovsky dedicated this concert to Nikolai Rubinstein, his former superior at the Moscow Conservatory, who died in 1881 before he could give its premiere. The concerto was then performed for the first time in New York on 12 November 1881 by the English pianist Madeleine Schiller with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Little Russian” also came into being in Kamenka. Tchaikovsky composed it in the summer months of 1872. In the 19th century, the Ukrainian territory under the rule of the Russian Empire was called “Little Russia”. Tchaikovsky heard several folk songs in Ukraine which he noted down with interest, and subsequently used them in this symphony in all four movements. The inspiration by East Slavic folklore is obvious in the slow introduction of the first movement presented by horn and later bassoon; the movement continues in sonata form and the first movement ends with a recapitulation of the opening folk theme. The second movement is again framed by one musical idea. It begins in an untraditional way with rhythmic strokes of the tympani. Its whole subsequent course has the form of a festive march (reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s opera Undine). Scherzo (third movement) takes the form of a trio dominated by wind instruments; is it followed by a majestic introduction of the fourth movement. After that, the music considerably accelerates and brings about a number of expressive contrasts. The music gradually increases in intensity, making the listener think that it is a fast-paced coda which would soon close the symphony. However, then comes the exposition of a short lyrical theme and it is clear that the real culmination is yet to come. Indeed, Tchaikovsky ends his symphony in his typical way – by a monumental conclusion in the orchestral tutti.

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