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Czech Philharmonic • Antwerp


The Czech Philharmonic has performed in Antwerp only once, in 1937 led by Rafael Kubelík, so their return is eagerly awaited. The orchestra’s first appearance at Queen Elisabeth Hall will present a programme of works by Antonín Dvořák. The French virtuoso Bertrand Chamayou will make his first appearance on the tour to play the Piano Concerto.

Programme

Antonín Dvořák
Carnival Overture, Op. 92

Antonín Dvořák
Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33

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

Performers

Bertrand Chamayou piano

Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • Antwerp

Antwerp — Queen Elisabeth Hall

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Performers

Bertrand Chamayou   piano

Bertrand Chamayou

Bertrand Chamayou has mastered an extensive repertoire displaying striking assurance, imagination, artistic approach, and remarkable consistency in his performances. He is a regular performer in venues such as the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Lincoln Center, the Herkulessaal Munich and London’s Wigmore Hall. He has appeared at major festivals including New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival, the Lucerne Festival, Salzburg Festival, Edinburgh International Festival, Rheingau Musik Festival and Beethovenfest Bonn.

This season sees him appear with Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and Lorenzo Viotti, London Symphony Orchestra and François-Xavier Roth, SWR Symphonieorchester and Brad Lubman, Royal Scottish National Orchestra with Elim Chan, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Semyon Bychkov, and the Orchestre de Paris. A tour with Les Siècles and Roth will lead him to important venues across Europe.

Chamayou is a regular chamber music performer, with partners including Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, Quatuor Ébène, Antoine Tamestit and Sol Gabetta. Following his successful performances at Lincoln Center’s Great Performers Series and Salzburg’s Easter Festival, this season sees him perform recitals at Den Norske Opera, Teatro San Carlo Naples, SWR Freiburg and with Sol Gabetta at Philharmonie Essen, in Lucerne, Hannover, Semperoper Dresden and at Konzerthaus Freiburg.

Bertrand Chamayou has made a number of highly successful recordings, including a Naïve CD of music by César Franck, which was awarded several accolades. For his recording of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 5 he was awarded the Gramophone Recording of the Year Award 2019. The only artist to win France’s prestigious Victoires de la Musique on four occasions, he has an exclusive recording contract with Warner/Erato and was awarded the 2016 ECHO Klassik for his recording of Ravel’s complete works for solo piano. 

Bertrand Chamayou was born in Toulouse; his musical talent was quickly noted by pianist Jean-François Heisser, who later became his professor at the Paris Conservatoire. He completed his training with Maria Curcio in London.

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
Carnival Overture, Op. 92

“Whatever we have in Czech history that is truly great has grown from the bottom up!” This sentence by the famous Czech author Jan Neruda tells us a great deal about the history of the Czech nation and its great figures. It certainly applies unreservedly to Antonín Dvořák, whose growing artistry took him from a little village to the world’s greatest metropolises.

When Neruda wrote these words in 1884, he was 50 years old. And what was Antonín Dvořák doing in 1891 at age 50? He was a famous, sought-after composer, an artist whose popularity had long since crossed the borders of Austria-Hungary and spread all over Europe. It was in the year of his 50th birthday that he was offered the directorship of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. He considered the matter very carefully, consulting with many of the people who were close to him. For example, he wrote to his friend Alois Göbl in June 1891: “I’m supposed to go to America for two years! […] Should I accept the offer? Or not? Send me word.” Dvořák had never been very fond of celebrations, so it is no surprise that in early September he refused to take part in celebrations in Prague for his 50th birthday because he was spending time with his family at his beloved summer home in Vysoká, where he went to rest and to compose. Four days after his birthday (12 September 1891), he finished orchestrating Carnival Overture, Op. 92, the second work in a cycle of three concert overtures that are programmatic in character. We do not have a concrete programme from the composer, but he clearly realised something here that no one would have expected from him in the realm of symphonic music. Two years earlier, he had already gone down this path in chamber music with his Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85, thirteen pieces for solo piano, about which he jokingly commented: “I’m not just an absolute musician, but also a poet.” Dvořák had originally conceived his triptych of concert overtures depicting three aspects of human life as a single whole with the title “Nature, Life, and Love”. All three overtures are also carefully motivically interconnected. Ultimately, however, the composer told his publisher Simrock that his overtures “each can also be played separately”, and he gave them the opus numbers and titles In Nature’s Realm, Op. 91, Carnival Overture, Op. 92, and Othello, Op. 93. The first performance of all three overtures took place on 28 April 1892 at the Rudolfinum in Prague at the composer’s farewell concert before his departure for America, with Dvořák himself conducting the orchestra of the National Theatre. Dvořák also conducted their second performance, this time across the ocean on 21 October 1892 at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Antonín Dvořák
Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33

Dvořák was already a composer of genius by 1876, when he wrote his Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33, but he was basically known only to the Prague public. At the time, he had to earn a very modest living as an organist and by giving piano lessons privately. In those days, the pianist Karel Slavkovský was devoting considerable attention to music by Czech composers. On 24 March 1878, it was he who played was the first to play the solo part of Dvořák’s new work in the hall at Prague’s Žofín Palace. A second performance, again in Prague and with the same pianists, took place two years later. At that time, shortly after the extraordinary success of Dvořák’s Moravian Duets and of the Slavonic Dances in Germany, he was receiving offers from important publishers. One of them, Julius Hainauer from Breslau, published the concerto in 1883. Before publication, Dvořák made major revisions to the score, giving the work its ideally polished sound. His concerto was ahead of its time in many ways, and that had negative consequences. Some music critics (although a small minority) saw the work’s departures from the usual as weaknesses, while others were blinded by their aversion to Czech patriotism, an entirely irrelevant objection in the case of Dvořák. Despite such voices, the composer maintained a very detached perspective. After an otherwise successful concert in Berlin in 1884, Dvořák wrote to the piano virtuoso Anna Grosser: “All this criticism overflowing with ridicule, hatred, and bile (more like an execution) provides me with plenty of amusement and entertainment. Things keep getting crazier, but those gentlemen in Berlin still will not stop me from taking flight!” 

The critics did not keep the composer from taking flight, but his Piano Concerto remained grounded to some extent. The concerto continued to be played over the following years, but notably less often than other great works by Dvořák. An important chapter in the performance history of the concerto in the 20th century belongs to an arrangement of the solo part made by the Prague piano virtuoso and teacher Vilém Kurz 15 years after Dvořák’s death. Several of his pupils and other pianists played the concerto in that form even long after such arrangements had ceased to be fashionable, when, to the contrary, there were increasing efforts towards the most faithful possible interpretations of composers’ intentions. The soloist for today’s concert, András Schiff, has clear reasons for playing Dvořák’s own version. More and more pianists have begun doing so in recent decades, but the work is still performed less often overall than other concertos. The key to an explanation may be the words of the phenomenal pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who only played Dvořák’s own version. Richter certainly did not suffer from technical limitations, but he always “merely” had to get to the heart of a work and understand it. In November 1977, he wrote in his diary: “I recall how long it took me to learn this [Dvořák’s] concerto (nearly three years), while I learned Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto in just two months without having any special difficulties.” This may be another reason why it is hard to find another work like Dvořák’s Piano Concerto: brilliant yet seldom heard.

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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