Czech Philharmonic • Semyon Bychkov

Chief conductor Semyon Bychkov will appear with two orchestras in a single evening: the Czech Student Philharmonic and the Czech Philharmonic. The student orchestra, which as been taking part in a growing number of projects at the Rudolfinum in recent years, will play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,

Subscription series B | Duration of the programme 1 hour 40 minutes


Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (32')

— Intermission —

Dmitri Shostakovich
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (50')


Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Youth Philharmonic

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • Semyon Bychkov

Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall

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“I am greatly looking forward to appearing in this programme on the same stage with the members of the Czech Philharmonic together with our young student orchestra. To me, there is symbolism in the combination of these two works because I regard Shostakovich as the Beethoven of the 20th century. While Beethoven suffered physically, Shostakovich suffered mentally. In this sense, there is a special connection between the fates of the two men, just as there is between the two symphonies. In the case of Beethoven, his former hero Napoleon, to whom he had originally dedicated his Eroica, had now turned into his enemy, attacking Austria and even occupying Vienna in 1805. Originally, Shostakovich had to speak of his Fifth Symphony as ‘a Soviet composer’s response to just criticism’. But to his friends, he admitted that the conclusion was a satirical portrait of a dictator, deliberately empty but swimming in boundless flattery”, says Bychkov.


The Czech Youth Philharmonic  

In the modern history of the Czech Philharmonic, when the first steps were being taken towards an educational programme, the idea arose in 2006 – while Václav Riedlbauch was still the executive director – of giving symphonic concerts for student audiences, i.e. for a new generation of listeners. And who would be playing? The Czech Philharmonic, of course! The problem was that the orchestra was already so busy that their participation in such concerts was out of the question. So the choice fell to the former Prague Student Orchestra, an ensemble with many years of tradition of a youthful, enthusiastic approach to music. This worked wonderfully, because the students in the audience saw their peers on stage. For these concerts, the ensemble took the name Czech Student Orchestra. Bound by their love of music, these musicians gave performances from 2006 to 2010 under the leadership of the conductor Marko Ivanović, playing such works as Janáček’s Sinfonietta, Dvořák’s New World Symphony, Cello Concerto, and Te Deum, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet suite.

When new management took over in 2011, the Czech Philharmonic greatly expanded its educational activities, and that was an opportunity for renewal of the student orchestra’s activities, renamed as the Czech Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. The idea is to give the rising generation of musicians – mostly students at music schools, whether grammar schools with a music emphasis, conservatoires, or academies of music – the regular opportunity of rehearsing and performing great symphonic, concertante, and choral works. Over time, the efforts turned towards creating a permanent orchestra that would support its members in the perfecting of their ensemble playing and in the creation of long-term relationships and mutual understanding. The Czech Philharmonic Youth Orchestra musicians also serve as “bearers of light” in relation to their peers by showing them that young people can love classical music and can present it enthusiastically to others.

Since the 2013/2014 season, the orchestra has been performing regularly at concerts of the Czech Philharmonic’s educational series Four Steps to the New World (under the baton of Marko Ivanović), and at the series Penguins at the Rudolfinum (with Vojtěch Jouza) and Who’s Afraid of the Philharmonic? (with Ondřej Vrabec). In April 2019, the Czech Philharmonic Youth Orchestra appeared with Ida Kelarová and the Čhavorenge children’s choir at Šun Devloro concerts – musical celebrations of International Romani Day. In November 2019, the orchestra played under the baton of Robert Kružík at the Students’ Day Concert with the participation of Joachim Gauck and Petr Pithart.

In June 2020 the conductor Simon Rattle came to Prague insisting that he did not want to conduct just the Czech Philharmonic, but also “some orchestra with young people”. When the choice fell to the Czech Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, that was an enormous challenge for its members. Sir Simon enjoyed working with the young musicians, and he was unsparing in his praise: “The Czech Philharmonic Youth Orchestra reminds me of the orchestra of the Verbier Festival, which is made up of the best music students from all around the world, led by players from the Metropolitan Opera. That’s the level they are on.” Those are nice, flattering words, but they also mean an enormous obligation for all of the young musicians, as far as their future is concerned. Each individually and all of them together have it within their reach through the power of their common bond to remain diligent and conscientious in their preparation and to concentrate as attentively as possible. In the autumn of 2020 they were able to play just two concerts with Josef Špaček in the dual role of soloist and conductor. “I would really like to work with them again sometime; they were so attentive and kind! I had an incredibly good time with them,” said Josef Špaček afterwards.

Semyon Bychkov  conductor

Semyon Bychkov

In recognition of the 2024 Year of Czech Music – a major celebration of Czech music celebrated across the Czech Republic every 10 years since 1924 – Chief Conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov has put the music of Antonín Dvořák at the centre of his programmes with the Czech Philharmonic throughout the 2023–2024 season. In addition to conducting three programmes devoted to Dvořák in Prague, Bychkov and the Orchestra will tour the Dvořák programmes to South Korea, Japan, Spain, Austria, Germany, Belgium and the United States, as well as recording the last three symphonies for Pentatone. 

Semyon Bychkovʼs tenure at the Czech Philharmonic began in 2018 with concerts in Prague, London, New York, and Washington commemorating the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovak independence. Following the culmination of The Tchaikovsky Project, Bychkov and the Orchestra began their focus on Mahler. The first discs in a new Mahler cycle were released by Pentatone in 2022, with Symphony No. 5 chosen by The Sunday Times as its Best Classical Album.

Bychkovʼs repertoire spans four centuries. His highly anticipated performances are a unique combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy. In addition to guest engagements with the world’s major orchestras and opera houses, Bychkov holds honorary titles with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms – and the Royal Academy of Music, who recently awarded him an Honorary Doctorate. Bychkov was named “Conductor of the Year” by the International Opera Awards in 2015 and, by Musical America in 2022.

Bychkov began recording in 1986 and released discs with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Royal Concertgebouw, Philharmonia Orchestra and London Philharmonic for Philips. Subsequently a series of benchmark recordings with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne featured Brahms, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Strauss, Verdi, Glanert and Höller. Bychkov’s 1993 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with the Orchestre de Paris continues to win awards, most recently the Gramophone Collection 2021; 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 studied at the Leningrad Conservatory with the legendary Ilya Musin. Denied his prize of conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic, Bychkov emigrated to the United States in 1975 and, has lived in Europe since the mid-1980’s. In 1989, the same year he was named Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris, Bychkov returned to the former Soviet Union as the St Petersburg Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor. He was appointed Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra (1997) and Chief Conductor of Dresden Semperoper (1998).


Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

One of the most famous compositions in the history of classical music – Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – began around 1803, when its composer was recovering from his unrequited love for Count Joseph Deym’s young widow, Josephine von Brunswick, whom Beethoven taught to play the piano. At the same time, however, he had another serious personal crisis due to the struggle with his progressive hearing loss. This later prevented him from active as well as passive participation in the concert scene. From then on, he was only able to seek the meaning of his life exclusively in composing. Beethoven became deeply concerned with issues of heroism and noble ideas about the ultimate salvation of the universe, which was reflected in the increased pathos of his compositions. He was at the peak of his creative powers and released into the world one quality work after another, but at the time he was suffering from material deprivation.

The leitmotif of Symphony No. 5, known as “Schicksals-Sinfonie” (Fate Symphony), is the idea of the fight of one’s mind against metaphysically conceived fate, full of life crises and pain, while the result of this fight is the finding of inner harmony and peace. Beethoven worked on his first symphony in a minor key for an unusually long time simultaneously with the composition of his Sixth Symphony. He often returned to his Fifth, changing, reworking and revising many things. He was not satisfied with it until 1808, and on 22 December of that year the two new symphonies were performed for the first time before an audience at the Theater an der Wien.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony opens with a famous motif consisting of three Gs of equal duration followed by a sustained E flat below the G. This essentially very simple motif, which is to be found in several of Beethoven’s earlier and later works, was allegedly described by the composer as “fate knocking at the door”. Beethoven imaginatively develops the motif in the following energetic flow of music, adhering above all to its rhythmic structure. The slow second movement is based on variations of two contrasting themes – a lyrically peaceful one and a fanfare-like heroic one. The scherzo of the third movement suggests the continued defiance of fate, which is underlined, among other things, by the repetition of the rhythmic pattern of the opening motif. The final victory is announced by an optimistic-sounding finale in the major key, which follows after the scherzo attaca, i.e., without a pause. It is written in sonata form and mostly returns to the musical narratives of the High Classical period.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Symfonie č. 5 d moll op. 47

The great master of music of the Soviet Union, Dmitri Shostakovich, inherited his musical talent from his parents. He composed his first works at the age of nine. In 1923 he graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in piano performance, and in two years he successfully completed his studies of composition, graduating with his Symphony No. 1 in F minor. This work, performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (as the city was named at that time) in 1926, received great critical acclaim, and the twenty-year-old Shostakovich, who had previously worked as a pianist-improviser for silent films, became a renowned composer literally overnight. He soon adopted the compositional practices of Western European modernism, which are particularly evident in Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues for piano, Symphony No. 4 in C minor, the ballets The Age of Gold and The Bolt and the operas The Nose and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The Moscow premiere of Lady Macbeth in 1936 brought a turning point in his career. It happened to be attended by Joseph Stalin, who subsequently initiated the first cultural-political attack against Shostakovich in the form of an article entitled Muddle Instead of Music published in the Pravda newspaper. Another repression came in 1948 following the adoption of the infamous cultural doctrine formulated by Andrei Zhdanov and subsequent purges against Soviet composers. Both for internal and external reasons, Shostakovich then also composed patriotic works in order “to meet the needs of the Soviet people”, for which he was praised and awarded by the Soviet power. His compositions seeking the official approval include, for example, Symphony No. 7 in C major “Leningrad”, which is a reaction to the siege of Leningrad in 1941, the cantata Poem of the Motherland (1947) or the oratorio Song of the Forests (1949) which celebrates the concept of contemporary forestry policy. Shostakovich wrote a total of fifteen symphonies, the same number of string quartets, six instrumental concerts and many other compositions. A specific part of his work consists of film scores for a large number of Soviet films.

1937 saw the culmination of a campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union called the Great Purge, which began three years ago. It was a period of fear and insecurity for all categories of Soviet society. The paranoid Joseph Stalin decided to destroy all real and perceived enemies of the political regime. Arrests, deportations to Gulag labor camps, mass executions and disappearance of people without a trace were commonplace, and even the regime’s top representatives could not be sure whether they were to be the next victims of these atrocities. Dmitri Shostakovich received an official offer of a teaching post at the Leningrad Conservatory, but he was rightly frightened by the devastating criticism of his opera the year before. He was also afraid to publicly present his avant-garde Fourth Symphony, which by its very modern, experimental tone was certainly not in line with the aesthetic ideas of Socialist Realism, which became a compulsory artistic direction in the Soviet Union. Instead he proceeded to compose Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47. In contrast to his previous symphonies, he chose a more traditional and understandable musical language. He certainly did not resort to banalities and created an impressive composition of very serious and profound content. Shostakovich’s fears of how his Fifth Symphony would be accepted proved unfounded. Its premiere took place on 21 November 1937 as part of the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. The Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Shostakovich’s close friend Yevgeny Mravinsky. The work was a huge success both with the public and official critics from the Communist Party, and served as a model of Soviet symphonism. Shostakovich was left in peace until the next decade, when he was subjected to other attacks.