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Czech Philharmonic • Semyon Bychkov


In our recording and concert plans for Mahler’s symphonies, the time has arrived for the Third Symphony—a work that includes voices and is the longest of all his symphonies. According to voting by the world’s top conductors, it is one of the ten greatest symphonies of all time. The solo part will be performed by mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison.

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

Programme

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (106')

Performers

Christa Mayer mezzo-soprano

Catriona Morison mezzo-soprano

Prague Philharmonic Choir women’s choir
Lukáš Vasilek choirmaster

Pueri gaudentes boys’ choir
Jan Kyjovský, Libor Sládek choirmasters

Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • Semyon Bychkov

Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall

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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
Ticket sales for all public dress rehearsals:
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

Catriona Morison  mezzo-soprano

Catriona Morison

After having graduated from music school in Glasgow (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), Berlin, and Weimar, the career of the Scottish mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison has been on the ascent step by step. She was a member of the opera studio in Weimar, then she won an engagement at the opera in Wuppertal, but the breakthrough of her career came in 2017 (at age 31), when she was the winner at the famed competition BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. Since then, we have been seeing her routinely on concert stages with famed orchestras such as the Cologne Philharmonic, the Orchestra of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and the Elbephilharmonie and at the festivals in Edinburgh and Salzburg. She has also appeared at the BBC Proms. She has not forgotten about Wuppertal, however, where she recently sang the role of Nerone (The Coronation of Poppaea). 

Her repertoire knows no limits, encompassing works from four centuries including contemporary music. For example, she gave the world premieres of This Frame is Part of the Painting by Errollyn Wallen and of the Prague Symphony by Detlev Glanert, with which she made her Czech Philharmonic debut two years ago. Last season, she stood in at the last moment for the ailing Christa Mayer in Mahler’s Third Symphony.

Prague Philharmonic Choir  

The Prague Philharmonic Choir (PPC), founded in 1935 by the choirmaster Jan Kühn, is the oldest professional mixed choir in the Czech Republic. Their current choirmaster and artistic director is Lukáš Vasilek, and the second choirmaster is Lukáš Kozubík.

The choir has earned the highest acclaim in the oratorio and cantata repertoire, performing with the world’s most famous orchestras. In this country, they collaborate regularly with the Czech Philharmonic and the Prague Philharmonia. They also perform opera as the choir-in-residence of the opera festival in Bregenz, Austria.

This season, they will appear at four choral concerts of their own, with programmes focusing mainly on difficult, lesser-known works of the choral repertoire. Again this year they will be devoting themselves to educational projects: for voice students, they are organising the Academy of Choral Singing, and for young children there is a cycle of educational concerts.

The choir has been honoured with the 2018 Classic Prague Award and the 2022 Antonín Dvořák Prize.

Lukáš Vasilek  choirmaster

Lukáš Vasilek

Lukáš Vasilek studied conducting and musicology. Since 2007, he has been the chief choirmaster of the Prague Philharmonic Choir (PPC). Most of his artistic work with the choir consists of rehearsing and performing the a cappella repertoire and preparing the choir to perform in large-scale cantatas, oratorios, and operatic projects, during which he collaborates with world-famous conductors and orchestras (such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Czech Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic, and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic).

Besides leading the PPC, he also engages in other artistic activities, especially in collaboration with the vocal ensemble Martinů Voices, which he founded in 2010. As a conductor or choirmaster, his name appears on a large number of recordings that the PPC have made for important international labels (Decca Classics, Supraphon); in recent years, he has been devoting himself systematically to the recording of Bohuslav Martinů’s choral music. His recordings have received extraordinary acclaim abroad and have earned honours including awards from the prestigious journals Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, and Diapason.

Pueri gaudentes  

Since their formation more than three decades ago, Pueri gaudentes have performed in Europe, Asia and the USA. The Czech boys’ choir have made three tours of Japan and received coveted accolades at music festivals in Belgium, Germany and Italy. Pueri gaudentes have made numerous recordings for radio and television, and also feature on many CDs. The choir have often collaborated with the State Opera in Prague. They have appeared at renowned festivals (Prague Spring, etc.), performing along with distinguished Czech singers, orchestras (Prague Philharmonia, among others) and choruses (Prague Philharmonic Choir, etc.). In 2019, Pueri gaudentes made a two-week tour of Sweden, Finland, Russia and Estonia, within which they won a competition in St Petersburg and sang at the choral music festival in Laulupidu, one of the world’s greatest events of its kind (their visit is captured on the Czech Television documentary Pueri gaudentes in Estonia). In 2019, they also performed at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Led by the chorus masters Libor Sládek and Jan Kyjovský, Pueri gaudentes are accompanied by the pianist Denisa Martínková.

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

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 3 in D minor

When Gustav Mahler was finishing his First Symphony, he began the sketches for his Second, and while finishing the Second he began his Third. The creative process for taking vast works from the first sketches to the definitive orchestration always took a few years. However, lack of time was not the only reason for these overlaps. In every symphony, Mahler was building a single world, and at a certain phase, another world opened itself before him. Again while composing the Third Symphony, there was a moment when he got a glimpse into yet another world. The Third was originally to have had seven movements, but he ultimately saved the last movement for his Fourth Symphony. Even with “just” six movements, the Third turned out to be Mahler’s longest symphony.

In the history of the premieres and early performances of Mahler’s symphonies, and especially of the early ones, we find one condemnation after another; music critics in particular competed with each other in denigrating his music. When Gustav Mahler arrived on the scene, his quite different kind of musical expression elicited very intense reactions from some of the composer’s colleagues of the previous generation. Even Johannes Brahms, who had a friendly inclination towards Mahler and respected him as a conductor, regarded his younger colleague as the “king of the revolutionaries”, and he was truly horrified by the score of his Second Symphony. Certain conductors greatly contributed to the performing of Mahler’s music, but even they could not guarantee success for the innovative music. In those days, it was still relatively common for only some of the movements of a multi-movement work to be played at concerts, and Mahler disapproved. After all, he was building “entire worlds” in his symphonies. Although he regarded the practice as the mutilation of his works, he had to resign himself to such compromises. At the same time, he did all he could to have his compositions played in their entirety. Devastating reviews tormented Mahler, but they did not dissuade him from writing more works. In March 1896, he wrote to a friend: “You'll see: I shall not live to see my cause triumph! Everything I write is too strange and new to my listeners, who cannot establish contact with me.”

It was in this state of mind that Gustav Mahler wrote his Symphony No. 3 in D minor. He began work on the first sketches in 1893 while in his second year as chief conductor at the opera in Hamburg. His enormous conducting workload prevented him from concentrating on composing, but he was creating new music in his mind during every free moment. He jotted down sketches of his compositions during the theatre’s season and looked forward to summer, when he would again become a “holiday composer”. Concentrated work on the Third Symphony took up the two summer holidays of 1895 and 1896. Mahler had established a ritual for his summer composing, which he followed in this case as well, leaving the city after the theatre’s season had ended and heading for the Alps. In the summer of 1895 he stayed at the same site as in previous years, at an inn in Steinbach near Lake Attersee. Every morning at 6:30 he went to a little hut (which is still standing) that he had built between the inn and the lakeshore. In a tiny room, he had only a desk and a piano. In that small, isolated space, he could concentrate fully on his great works, and no one was permitted to disturb him. He would occasionally go out into the meadows or on a walk alone, but he would return to his hut immediately to write into his score whatever ideas he had come up with. He did not leave the hut until lunchtime.

In his new symphony, “Nature itself” was to speak, but not in the sense of imitation or tone painting. Mahler wanted to portray the act of creation in music. He later revealed to a friend how he himself was affected by the symphony’s first movement: “It is hardly music anymore, just the voice of nature: one shudders at this motionless, soulless material (I could have called this movement “What the rocks tell me”), from which, little by little, life frees itself and finally conquers, developing and differentiating step by step: flowers, animals, men, right up to the kingdom of the spirit and that of the angels.” Mahler originally gave the symphony’s six movements titles. For the first movement, he wrote: “Pan awakens: Summer marches in”, and for the second: “What the flowers of the field tell me”. He continued in the same fashion with names for the rest of the movements: movement III is a musical setting of what the animals of the forest told him, followed by mankind and angels. Finally, his inscription for the sixth movement was “What love tells me”.

Mahler later suppressed the movements’ programmatic titles, but he retained the content of his conception. The symphony’s first three movements are purely instrumental; the composer waits until the fourth movement to let the human voice be heard. The alto solo “O Mensch! gib Acht!” (O Man! Take heed!) to a text by Friedrich Nietzsche has a revelatory effect. Mahler’s indication in the score reads “Very slowly, misterioso, sempre ppp”. The fifth movement also employs the vocal element, but in a completely different manner. It opens with ringing bells and a boys’ choir singing “Bim, bam” in accordance with Mahler’s indications: “Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression”. A women’s choir and alto soloist join in, singing the text “There were three angels singing a sweet song” from Mahler’s favourite collection of folk poetry, The Youth’s Magic Horn. While the fifth movement is brisk and the shortest part of the symphony, in the final sixth movement the composer slows the music down to create a calm, heartfelt statement of optimism. About the finale, regarded by many as one of Mahler’s most beautiful movements, the composer wrote in a letter: “It is a summation of what I feel towards all creation, and that could not have been done without undergoing deeply painful mental processes that suddenly evaporate into blissful faith.”

The composer divided his six-movement symphony into two parts. The first part contains the unusually long first movement, and the second part consists of the second through the sixth movements. Mahler was worried about the unusual length of the whole work, but he was convinced that it did not contain even a single superfluous bar, and he had serious conceptual reasons for the first movement’s dimensions: “No one can imagine how strenuous it is to compose such a long movement, to keep it cohesive, and not lose control over it. But I needed it to serve as a base, like a colossal pillar, like the base of a pyramid that gets ever narrower, more transparent, and weaker in the subsequent movements.”

The public premiere of the Third Symphony took place on 9 March 1897 in Berlin in Mahler’s presence, but just as in the cases of his two previous symphonies, it was heard in an incomplete form. Three movements were played under the baton of the outstanding conductor Felix Weingartner: the second, third, and sixth. The public in the packed concert hall reacted immediately after each movement was finished. After the “Flowers” movement, the listeners reacted favourably, but their dissatisfaction increased with each succeeding movement. By the end the applause was completely drowned out by hissing. Mahler fared even worse in the press, where he was portrayed as a “tragicomic hero” with “no imagination whatsoever” or “a jokester of the worst calibre”. Exactly five years later, on 9 March 1902, Gustav Mahler and Alma Schindler were married at the Karlskirche, a baroque church in Vienna. At the end of May 1902, when Mahler was 41 years old, he left Vienna accompanied by the young Alma, just 22 at the time, and went to Krefeld, Germany, to conduct his Third Symphony in its full, six-movement version at an important contemporary music festival. He insisted on plenty of rehearsals, and he resisted the urging of the organisers to give the individual movements titles. Having had bad experiences with his previous symphonies, he knew the kinds of misunderstandings that could arise from an incorrectly interpreted “programme”. He had realised that his “artistry always expresses only that which cannot be expressed in words.” He added humorously: “Listeners cannot be helped. Each listener has to help himself by listening repeatedly and carefully studying the score. […] Fortunately, it is my calling to write music, and not to write about music.” When the Third Symphony was first heard in its entirety on 9 June 1902, it was an extraordinary event and a triumph for the composer. Alma Mahler recalled: “There was a huge outburst of cheers after the first part, and after each subsequent movement the listeners seemed to be more moved until the last part, when the public went into a real frenzy.” The composer-conductor was called back to the stage twelve times.

Today, Mahler’s Third Symphony is played in concert halls all around the world. Within it there is something extraordinary, in places even terrifying, as the composer himself wrote in a letter to the singer Anna von Mildenburg: “My symphony will be something the likes of which the world has never heard before! In it, Nature itself speaks, revealing secrets so profound that one perhaps only senses them in dreams! Let me tell you, there are some passages in it that almost frighten me. Sometimes I even ask myself whether it should have been written at all.”

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