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Czech Philharmonic • Barcelona


The Barcelona concert is the first chance in 14 years to hear the Czech Philharmonic there. For the occasion, chief conductor Semyon Bychkov will lead Dvořák’s supreme orchestral works: the Cello Concerto with Spanish virtuoso Pablo Ferrández and the Ninth Symphony “From the New World”.

Programme

Antonín Dvořák
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104

Antonín Dvořák
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 “From the New World”

Performers

Pablo Ferrández cello

Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • Barcelona

Barcelona — Palau de la Música

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Performers

Pablo Ferrández  cello

Pablo Ferrández

The Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández, now 32 years old, was destined from birth for a brilliant musical career. Both of his parents were also musicians, and they named their child for the iconic Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. Ferrández soon showed himself to be worthy of the name: he turned out to be a prodigy, making the impression of a “trained” cellist at age three, starting to make public appearances at age nine, and making his debut with the Spanish National Orchestra at age 12. He is said to have been a very disciplined child, and he was unaware of his exceptional nature because he was constantly immersed in his work.

At age 13 he began studying at the prestigious Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía under Natalia Shakhovskaya, a student of the great Mstislav Rostropovich, whose interpretive tradition Ferrández is following to a considerable extent. Ferrández then continued his musical education at the Kronberg Academy in Germany. Of course, his musical career would not be where it now is had it not been for two circumstances: victory at the famed Tchaikovsky International Competition (2015) and meeting Anne-Sophie Mutter, who took him under her wing as a scholar of her foundation. That not only put Ferrández in contact with his musical idol, who has since passed on many of her skills to him, but also earned him a large number of opportunities to perform in great concert halls including appearances alongside Anne-Sophie Mutter.

That is also how Ferrández first came to the Rudolfinum last January with Anne-Sophie Mutter, the Czech Philharmonic, and Manfred Honeck, excelling in Brahms’s Double Concerto. And today, we are fortunate to have a live recording of that successful concert. The acclaim was so tempestuous that Pablo Ferrández immediately received the offer to perform here again. He had no idea it would be so soon: already in September he stood in at the opening of the Dvořák Prague Festival in Dvořák’s great Cello Concerto. Despite his youth, he has already played the work on today’s programme countless times, and he included it on his first recording. According to some of the world’s critics, with Dvořák Ferrández has become “a cellist of stature” (The Guardian), and Czech critics have also been unsparing in their praise.

Ferrández and the Czech Philharmonic are taking Dvořák to Japan at the turn of October and November, and he will also be appearing on the March tour of Europe with the Czech Philharmonic in Spain, Germany (on 19 March you can wish him a happy birthday at the concert in Munich), and France. This year, he will get quite a few chances to enjoy the masses of orchestral sound that he loves during his solo appearances: on his busy calendar are several debuts with American orchestras in Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and other important cities as well as concerts with the already familiar faces of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestre National de France. A “New genius of the cello” (Le Figaro), he is conquering the world with his 1689 Stradivarius.

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

Antonín Dvořák
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104

At the end of his stay in America, Antonín Dvořák wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (B191), his most famous work in the genre alongside his concertos for piano (G minor, Op. 33) and violin (A minor, Op. 53). Yet he had long regarded the cello, an instrument that supposedly “whines up high and mumbles down low”, as unsuitable for solo playing, and he basically discarded his first, youthful attempt at writing a cello concerto. His opinion of the cello changed under the influence of wonderful performers: Hanuš Wihan, with whom he had played in a piano trio during his “farewell tour”, and the American composer and cellist Victor Herbert, Dvořák’s colleague at the conservatoire in New York. Dvořák was truly captivated by Herbert’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 30 (1894). He began work on sketches for his own concerto in B minor on 8 November 1894, just ten days later he began orchestrating it, the score was finished on 9 February 1895, and he made a major revision to the finale after returning to Bohemia.

The concerto consists of the usual three movements: the opening Allegro is composed in sonata form, the second movement (Adagio ma non troppo) is warmly lyrical, and the third movement (Finale. Allegro moderato) has the layout of an extended rondo with motivic connections to both preceding movements. The whole concerto exudes a sense of melancholy and desire for the homeland and for family. At the same time, there is an awareness of the impending return from the labyrinth of the world to the paradise of the heart; the music is very emotional and full of beautiful melodies as well as wonderful orchestration. It is no exaggeration to call it one of the most admired compositions of its genre. Dvořák himself was aware of the concerto’s exceptional qualities, referring to it in a letter to Josef Bohuslav Foerster as a work that brought him “outrageous joy” and that decidedly exceeds his two earlier concertos in importance. The cello and orchestra become such equal partners that the concerto has sometimes been described as Dvořák’s tenth symphony. The music’s intimate message is highlighted by a motif from Kéž duch můj sám (Leave Me Alone), a song in Dvořák’s cycle Four Songs, Op. 82 that was a particular favourite of the composer’s sister-in-law Josefina Kounicová. The motif is heard in the second movement and again in the finale, which was revised after Josefina’s death in May 1895.

The English cellist Leo Stern played the concerto’s premiere on 19 March 1896 in London with the Philharmonic Society under Antonín Dvořák’s baton. Stern studied the new concerto very diligently, being aware that it “is quite unlike any other cello concerto” and “is very difficult as regards intonation”. He acquitted himself honourably, however, so he also played the premieres in Prague (11 April 1896) and elsewhere. Although the Cello Concerto is dedicated to Hanuš Wihan, Prague audiences never heard him play it, a fact explained in part by a dispute over a cadenza, which Wihan wanted to add to the concerto, but which Dvořák resolutely refused. Mostly at fault, however, was Wihan’s busy schedule with commitments to the Bohemian Quartet and the Prague Conservatoire.

Antonín Dvořák
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”

Dvořák’s prestigious invitation to New York did not come out of nowhere. For years, his music had already been familiar in the United States, and American newspapers had been writing about his successes in Europe as a composer and conductor. Above all, however, for America Dvořák was iconic as a national composer. “Americans expect great things from me, and above all, supposedly, that I will show them the way to the promised land and to the realm of new, independent art, in short, how to create the music of a nation!! […] Certainly, this is an equally great and beautiful task for me, and I hope I shall have the good fortune to succeed with God’s help. There is more than enough material here,” wrote the composer to his friend Josef Hlávek after arriving in America. Dvořák did, in fact, delve into America’s musical material with great interest, as is revealed in an interview for the New York Herald: “Since I have been in this country I have been deeply interested in the national music of the negroes and the Indians. […] I intend to do all in my power to call attention to this splendid treasure of melody which you have.” Dvořák did not borrow the melodies, however. He created his own melodies using many of the characteristic features of folk songs that he combined with the essence of American folklore. In addition, the motifs from the new Symphony in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”, did not come into the world instantly in the form in which we now know them. This is documented by the composer’s sketches, in which the now famous themes appear still with many deviations from the final version. It is clear that during the compositional process, Dvořák was giving ever deeper expression to the “American spirit” that he wanted the music to embody, adding syncopations including a special rhythm known as the “Scotch snap”, highlighting the pentatonic scale etc. However, his new symphony was by no means an attempt to do everything differently from his previous symphonies. As he was finishing the score, he brought this up in a letter to his friend Göbl: “I’m just now finishing my Symphony in E minor, which will be strikingly different from my earlier ones, mostly in terms of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic figures—just my orchestration has not changed, something in which I probably will not advance any further, nor do I wish to, and I have my reasons.”

The composer also mentioned the work’s tempestuous reception at the premiere at New York’s Carnegie Hall in December 1893 (Anton Seidl conducted the New York Philharmonic) in a letter to his publisher Fritz Simrock in Berlin: “The symphony’s success on December 15th and 16th was magnificent; the newspapers say that no composer has ever before achieved such a triumph. I was seated in a box, the hall was occupied by New York’s most elite public, and the people applauded so much that I had to wave from my box like a king to show my gratitude! Like Mascagni in Vienna (don’t laugh!). You know that I prefer to try to avoid such ovations, but I had to do this and show myself.” The composer did not inscribe the title “From the New World” on the score’s title page until a few months after finishing the work; it was on the very day that he handed the score over to the conductor for rehearsals. The title of the first work he had written in America gave rise to a great deal of comment in newspaper articles. Having read them, the composer supposedly remarked with a smile: “Well, it seems I have confused their minds a bit.”

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