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Czech Philharmonic • Hamburg


Just half a year after their previous residency there, the Czech Philharmonic will again give concerts at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, this time with Víkingur Ólafsson in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. Semyon Bychkov will then conduct Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, which is a symbolic statement about the struggle between good and evil.

Programme

Robert Schumann
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54

Dmitri Shostakovich
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, “The Year 1905”

Performers

Víkingur Ólafsson piano

Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • Hamburg

Hamburg — Elbphilharmonie

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Performers

Víkingur Ólafsson  piano

Víkingur Ólafsson

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.

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

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.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, “The Year 1905”

In September 1956 Dmitri Shostakovich celebrated his 50th birthday. He was considered the greatest symphonist of his time and was beginning to take stock. “I think that many things repeat themselves in Russian history. Of course the same event can’t repeat itself exactly, there must be differences, but many things are repeated nevertheless. People think and act similarly in many things… I wanted to show this recurrence in the Eleventh Symphony. I wrote it in 1957 and it deals with contemporary themes even though it’s called “1905”. It is about the people who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over. That is how the impressions of my childhood and my adult life come together.” Shostakovich himself was not witness of the bloody suppression of the 1905 St Petersburg uprising, but his family discussed this event all the time. He personally experienced the October Revolution of 1917, whose 40th anniversary had just been celebrated in 1957, and throughout his life he also felt its consequences: bullying and injustice on the one hand, and bombastic tributes and platitudes on the other. He was also constantly confronted with the regime that the 1917 Revolution had established, by which he was attacked and dragged under.

Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, was written in 1957 during Shostakovich’s summer stay in Komarovo near what was then Leningrad. Two themes run through the entire work – the theme introduced by the string section at the beginning of the symphony and, in contrast, the ominous timpani strokes. These leitmotifs, which constantly undergo a transformation, symbolize the historical repetition of events mentioned by the composer over the course of four movements played without a pause. Other elements include quotations from 19th-century political songs – songs of the revolutionary year 1905, as well as from Shostakovich’s other compositions. The first movement, introduced by the two contrasting themes of strings and timpani, features a melody of the song “Slushay!” (Listen!) from 1864, followed by “Arrestant” (The Prisoner) from 1857. In the second movement Shostakovich has incorporated melodies from his Ten Choruses on Texts by Revolutionary Poets from 1951; they are gradually escalating into sharp marching rhythms. The uprising breaks out, is defeated, and a deathlike silence reigns outside the Winter Palace. The third movement is a symbolic remembrance of the fallen victims, featuring the well-known funeral march of the Russian revolutionaries “You Fell Victim to a Fateful Struggle” and quotes from other revolutionary songs such as “Baikal”, “'Boldly on We March, Comrades!” and “Welcome, Free Speech”. A new revolution sprouts out of the grief for the dead, and it spreads with the other songs included in the fourth movement. The coda, again with the motif of Palace Square, anticipates a new bloodshed and warns against it.

The symphony premiered on 30 October 1957 in Moscow under Natan Rakhlin. Understandably, it was met with mixed reactions. Party leaders ranked it among the exemplary works of Socialist Realism and honored the composer with the Lenin Prize, but in circles that had already begun to shake off the chains of demagoguery it was regarded as a libation and, as far as its artistic value was concerned, as illustrative film music. After another 50 years, many details of the composer’s complicated life, sandwiched between the millstones of constant party criticism and his own convictions as an artist and human being, are now known. The symphony is now seen in the spirit which Shostakovich himself suggested – as a manifestation of the strangely turning wheel of fate, which returns many moments of development to the starting point from which humanity sets out each time to find anew the justification for its existence.

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