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Czech Philharmonic • Christian Immler

In the latter half of the 19th century, society was sharply divided in central Europe. The heart of the dispute was not religion however, it was art: advocates of Wagner and Brahms could not see eye to eye. The Czech Philharmonic’s Chief Conductor Semyon Bychkov has chosen to please those who favour the latter in these concerts entirely devoted to the music of Johannes Brahms.

Subscription series B


Johannes Brahms (arr. Detlev Glanert)
Four Serious Songs, Op. 121, arranged for baritone and orchestra (2004)

Johannes Brahms
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73


Christian Immler bass-baritone

Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • Christian Immler

Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall

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Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 which premiered in 1877, dates from the period when the composer was firmly establishing himself as a prominent figure of Viennese musical life. Brahms described the work as “pastoral”, certainly not without reference to the Sixth Symphony of his role model: Ludwig van Beethoven, who was not only a great source of inspiration for Brahms but also a figure whose legacy long challenged his confidence in his own compositions. The work’s mood comes across as cheerful, and even the sadder moments feel comforting. Nonetheless, Brahms wrote to his publisher that his symphony “is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.” This of course might have been meant ironically.

The first movement’s broadly arched main theme is one of Brahms’s most appealing melodies. The second movement continues in a similar vein while turning inwards even further. The scherzo, in the character of a classical minuet, is an inventive and artisanal evocation of serenade-like lightness. The final movement departs from the overall mood of calm, but even here one finds moments of repose. This formally balanced symphony is captivating with its succinct rhythms and orchestration in which Brahms makes use of his favourite colours in the French horns, luminous strings, and woodwinds.
Brahms’s Four Serious Songs were written near the end of his life when he was grieving the death of his friend Clara Schumann. He had also begun to feel the effects of an illness that would soon prove to be fatal. At this difficult time, he turned to Luther’s German translation of the Bible, and as he had already done in his German Requiem, focused more on passages that are existential rather than explicitly religious. The first three songs explore the finite and transient nature of human life, and the last offers listeners a fuller view of humankind’s fate.

In these performances, the songs will be heard in an orchestral arrangement by Detlev Glanert who has framed them with four preludes and postludes, creating a continuous musical flow to enhance the original work. The soloist is Christian Immler who returns to Prague following the world premiere of Glanert’s Prague Symphony with the Czech Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov in 2022. 


Christian Immler  bass baritone

Starting as an alto in the Tölzer Knabenchor, the German bass-baritone Christian Immler has become a versatile artist, today applauded at prestigious concert halls and theatres worldwide. With a voice of “warm, noble timbre and great flexibility” (Forum Opéra), he is widely known as a splendid performer of Baroque and early-Classical music, with his repertoire also encompassing 19-century and contemporary chamber and orchestral pieces, songs, oratorios and operas. He is a distinguished teacher too.  

Christian Immler studied voice at the Guildhall School of Music (with Rudolf Piernay), and is currently completing his musicology doctorate at Royal Holloway College in London. He launched his international career by winning the Concours international de Chant-Piano Nadia et Lili Boulanger in Paris, whereupon he was invited to appear with renowned orchestras (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Gewandhausorchester, Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest, etc.), at major concert venues (Wigmore Hall, Philharmonie de Paris, Mozarteum in Salzburg, etc.) and  opera houses (Opéra Comique in Paris , Grand Théâtre de Genève, etc.).

Over the long term, he has closely collaborated with the pianist Helmut Deutsch. Their albums Modern Times and Hidden Treasure have garnered great critical acclaim (Diamant dʼOpéra and Diapason Découverte). This year, they will release a recording of Robert Gund’s and Wilhelm Grosz’s songs, reflecting Immler’s penchant for exiled 20th-century composers.

Christian Immler is familiar to Czech music lovers too. In 2022, he gave two performances in Prague, first dazzling as Pilate in J. S. Bach’s St John Passion, opposite Collegium 1704 at the Rudolfinum, and then excelling in the world premiere of Detlev Glanert’s Symphony No. 4 (Prager Sinfonie), next to the mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison and the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The concert was well received by the critics, who lauded the piece and the performers alike, highlighting the soloists’ “cultivated, well-balanced dramatic expression and emotionally charged work with the text” (Petr Veber, Morison and Immler would subsequently perform Glanert’s symphony with the Czech Philharmonic under Bychkov in Leipzig and Amsterdam. In an interview, Immler praised the local orchestras, yet added that the Czech Philharmonic was “simply… the best”. 

In the current season, Immler will appear with the Czech Philharmonic on two occasions. Besides this concert, featuring Glanert’s music, he will render the bass part in a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor, which he sang on Marc Minkowski’s much-discussed album. By the way, Immler is also familiar with the alto part, which he recorded back in his childhood.

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.

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