Bychkov Breath-taking in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Strauss, Tchaikovsky: Bertrand Chamayou (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 25.1.2018. (JR)

 Semyon Bychkov (c) Tonhalle Orchestra

Semyon Bychkov (c) Tonhalle Orchestra

R. StraussDon Juan Op.20; Burlesque for piano and orchestra
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.4 Op.36

This was Semyon Bychkov’s long overdue and eagerly awaited debut with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich.

The first half of the concert gave the audience little inkling of the aural treat that was in store for them after the interval. The concert began with Don Juan, Bychkov entirely in control of both the passionate and powerful elements of the work. The orchestra responded to Bychkov’s every gesture, the horn section in particular stealing the limelight from the rest of the orchestra.

Then more Strauss, a rarely performed Burleske for piano and orchestra, composed when Strauss was only 22. His then intended soloist, Hans von Bülow, disliked the work and refused to play it, causing Strauss dejectedly to put the score in his desk drawer for a number of years.  It re-surfaced five years later and the soloist was Eugen d’Albert, to whom the work is dedicated. Whilst the work looks forward to Till Eulenspiegel with its playful ironic elements, it lacks a degree of palpable structure and direction. Being an early work, it does, however, hold a certain academic interest. The composer gives the timpanist a great deal to do. French pianist Bertrand Chamayou did his best with the work but really only won over the audience with his encore, Mendelssohn’s melodious song ‘On Wings of Song’ transcribed by Franz Liszt. I had to check whether a second pianist had not surreptitiously joined Chamayou, so complex was the finger-work.

Bychkov is recording all the Tchaikovsky symphonies with his new orchestra (as from 2018/2019), the Czech Philharmonic. He has already performed several Tchaikovsky symphonies around the world, in Amsterdam, New York and London, to great critical acclaim. On the strength of this performance alone, I shall certainly purchase the boxed set when it appears. Tchaikovsky suits Bychkov.  Yet again it was the quartet of blended horns (led by Ivo Gass and Mischa Greull), opening the symphony, who were resplendent, aided and abetted by the rest of the brass. Bychkov shaped the quiet passages with precision and built up the climaxes in thrilling fashion. The melancholic Andantino tugged at our heartstrings, particularly Simon Fuchs’ sublime and crystal-clear oboe solo. The strings revelled in their delightful pizzicato Scherzo, followed by the crash-bang-wallop start of the Finale, never crude, always rousing; it was all great fun.

At the end it was the orchestra who stamped their feet in admiration of the man who had shown us all the greatness and complexity of this ever ‘popular’ work; the audience cheered him long and hard, and he was clearly moved by the warm reception. It was only a pity that there were so many empty seats, even allowing for the fact that the concert is repeated three times. Too many music-lovers had missed a great performance. Hopefully Zurich will see more of Bychkov in years to come.

John Rhodes

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