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Czech Philharmonic • New York


The Czech Philharmonic opens its second evening at New York’s Carnegie Hall with another Dvořák concerto, this time for violin. Joining with the orchestra is Gil Shaham, an American virtuoso of Jewish descent. After intermission, chief conductor Semyon Bychkov lead the top Czech Orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which they recently recorded together to worldwide critical acclaim.

Programme

Antonín Dvořák 
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 

Gustav Mahler 
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor

Performers

Gil Shaham violin

Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • New York

New York — Carnegie Hall

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A full 120 years since its premiere in Cologne, the Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor still inspires listeners, so it is no great surprise that Semyon Bychkov’s carefully prepared performance was received by the Prague public with extraordinary enthusiasm at subscription concerts in 2021. The world-famous critic Norman Lebrecht gave the recording made at the time his top rating, calling it proof that the Czech Philharmonic’s present chief conductor is “setting the pace for Mahler on record in this decade”.

“I can find no flaw in this production. It is as gripping a Mahler Fifth as you will hear anywhere and that burnished Czech sound will linger long in the ear. The orchestra is immeasurably more virtuosic these days than it was in its previous Mahler cycle, nearly half a century ago with Vaclav Neumann, yet its ethos in Mahler remains inimitable”, says Lebrecht.

Recently, the orchestra has also been receiving acclaim for its performances of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. Last season, the work was heard under the baton of Semyon Bychkov in Prague, Madrid, Vienna, Hamburg, and Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, where the soloist was Gil Shaham. The enthusiastic ovation of the attentive Japanese public promises that the reprise of this collaboration at New York’s Carnegie Hall will also enchant listeners at the venue that Antonín Dvořák knew so well.

Performers

Gil Shaham  violin

Gil Shaham

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
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 5 in C Sharp Minor

Gustav Mahler completed Symphony No. 5 in the summer of 1902 at his summer home in Maiernigg in Carinthia and spent the next two years refining its instrumentation. This composition is another manifestation of Mahler’s innovation in the concept of form. The five-movement symphony is divided into three parts. The first two movements, linked through their thematic material, constitute the first part of the symphony (so the first movement can be seen as an exposition, i.e., introduction to the whole symphony, and the second movement as the first movement proper). The Scherzo in the center constitutes the second part. The third part consists of the last two movements. The frequently performed Adagietto is scored for strings and harp only; it is Mahler’s declaration of love to his wife Alma. It functions as a kind of intermezzo before the final movement. Mahler also does not follow the classical convention in his choice of the tonal plan, which is why he refused to include the key in the title. In a letter to the publisher Peters he wrote: “From the order of the movements (where the usual first movement now comes second) it is difficult to speak of a key for the ‘whole Symphony’, and to avoid misunderstandings the key should best be omitted. The main movement (No. 2) is in A minor, the Andante (No. 1) is in C sharp minor. Symphonies are named after the main movement – but only if it stands first, which has always been the case – with the exception of this work.”

The symphony was premiered on 18 October 1904 under the composer’s baton in Cologne, then on 20 February 1905 in Berlin. On 2 March 1905 it was first performed in Prague by the orchestra of the New German Theater under Leo Blech, and on 5 March, Mahler personally conducted it in Amsterdam. On the day of the Prague concert the press warned: “The audience is urged to take their seats before the beginning (starting at half past seven), as the first two movements of the symphony will be played without interruption and no one will be admitted.” The reviews pointed out that Mahler “began his artistic activity in the local theater [in Prague] and wanted to be considered half at home here.” It was noted that Mahler was influenced by Wagner (the first movement’s funeral march was compared to Siegfried’s death scene from Götterdämmerung), and, as regards the scherzo movement, by Anton Bruckner. The Adagietto was liked the most, but in the view of one of the critics, the overly complicated polyphonic technique in the final movement made too many demands on the listener. Bruno Walter, Mahler’s follower and the future great promoter of his work, expressed the same opinion after the Berlin premiere: “It was the first and I think the only time that I was not satisfied with a performance of Mahler’s work. The instrumentation of the complicated contrapuntal tangle is hard to follow, and Mahler himself complained to me that he was still unable to achieve perfection with the orchestra.” The composer returned to the Symphony No. 5 again in the year of his death and only then, as noted by Bruno Walter, did he consider it complete.

All of Mahler’s symphonies are essentially programmatic works: the First Symphony originally bore the title “Titan” (which Mahler later discarded), while his Second and Fourth Symphonies contain a vocal component that provides guidance. Especially after his experience with the First Symphony, Mahler refrained from specifying the content and did not provide any program for the Fifth Symphony, which made it difficult for even the experienced listeners on first hearing. The writer and music historian Romain Rolland, who attended a performance of the symphony on 21 May 1905 in Strasbourg, wrote: “He wished to prove that he could write pure music, and to make his claim surer he refused to have any explanation of his composition published in the concert program […]; he wished it, therefore, to be judged from a strictly musical point of view. It was a dangerous ordeal for him.” Mahler’s music has often taken on additional context in conjunction with other artistic modes: the powerfully emotional Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, for example, accompanies the film directed by Luchino Visconti based on Thomas Mann’s short story Death in Venice.

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