Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic give a memorable Prom

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC PROM 69 – Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Elena Stikhina (soprano); Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 10.9.2019. (CC)

Elena Stikhina (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

SmetanaThe Bartered Bride (1963-6, rev. 1869/70) – Overture, Polka, Furiant, Dance of the Comedians
TchaikovskyEugene Onegin (1877/8), Letter Scene
Shostakovich – Symphony No.8 in C minor Op.65 (1943)

This was Semyon Bychkov’s second Prom of the 2019 season. The first was with the BBCSO on August 11 (review); Bychkov occupies the Günter Wand Conducting Chair with that orchestra. Here, he led the Czech Philharmonic, of which he is Chief Conductor and Music Director, succeeding the late and much-missed Jiří Bělohlávek (1946-2017). The Czech Philharmonic has a distinguished history, dating back to 1896.

The tradition of playing Czech works by Czech orchestras is a strong one, and represented here by a commanding Overture and three dances from Smetana’s Bartered Bride.  A miraculous combination of full string sound and accuracy from the downbeat characterised Bychkov’s Overture, taken fast but at a speed that allowed everything to speak joyously. The bucolic element was there, strongly, in the bassoon ‘drone’ below piping woodwind.  Peppering the opera’s three acts are the three dances heard here, an active Polka, a full-sunshine Furiant and that encore-favourite, the ‘Dance of the Comedians’, with its perfectly accurate trumpets and startling timpani shots; but what really shone through was Bychkov’s command, perfectly exemplified by some impeccably graded diminuendos. One could hardly ask for more – except, perhaps, for a recording by Bychkov of the whole opera?

In the process of unleashing herself upon the World, the incredible Elena Stikhina was the soloist in the Tchaikovsky. Moscow Conservatory trained, she has already sung Norma in Boston, Tosca, Senta (Der fliegende Holländer), Leonora (Trovatore) and Adriana Lecouvreur in such operatic centres as the Met, Berlin State Opera and the Dresden Semperoper. Her Senta has been covered by Seen and Heard International (here), while her Leonora Trovatore was covered at Finnish National Opera (here). This, amazingly, was not only her debut at the Proms but also in the UK.

Stikhina’s voice has it all: radiance, palpable youth, open-throated generosity and a creamy lower register. And all of this was required for Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, which she not only sang but fully lived out for us on stage, each word clear. The drama was believable throughout – her cry of ‘What’s the matter with me?’ or the sheer emotive power of her imaginings as she waits for Onegin. In a Proms booklet interview, Stikhina says she sang the Letter Scene for her Diploma at Moscow. The whole was made all the more memorable because of the orchestral contribution, Bychkov encouraging the strings to play at their tenderest. The oboe solos (Jana Brožková) and the creamy horn contributions were particularly notable.

There was no encore (just as there was no encore after the Shostakovich); but we were left with an aching wish to hear more of Stikhina, that’s for sure. Bychkov has of course recorded a notable Onegin for Philips; but even more pertinent is the recently issued box of Tchaikovsky Symphonies, the three Piano Concertos (with Kirill Gerstein), Romeo and Juliet, Francesca da Rimini and the Serenade for Strings, all with the Czech Philharmonic, a vital purchase for Tchaikovsky lovers. One fondly remembers, also, a BBC/Barbican performance of Tchaikovsky pieces, including the Third Piano Concerto (review).

Bychkov’s recorded Shostakovich symphonies with the WDR Cologne Orchestra (on Avie) have been generally well received. The Eighth in that series was recorded in 2001 and was given a mixed reception by my colleague Don Satz on MusicWeb-International (review); at the Proms, he has conducted the Tenth (1991), the Eleventh (2009) and the Seventh (2015).

This present performance of the Eighth was, by some way, the greatest Shostakovich I have heard from Bychkov, live or on record. Beautifully paced, the opening of the long first movement was perfectly together (discipline is a key element to Bychkov’s conducting), the string sound blanched. A later phantasmagorical moment was testament to Bychkov’s attention to detail and the placement of that detail within the whole; more, Bychkov got to the heart of Shostakovich’s repetition processes. In these processes, Bychkov allows us to feel that Shostakovich takes the mechanism almost to breaking point, its core obsessiveness key to its generation of tension. And how the orchestral sections play together within themselves: three trumpets, perfectly balanced, shone.

The succeeding Allegretto, full of life with its superb piccolo contribution and the Allegro non troppo with its manic trombones led to the aching Largo, with its magnificent solo strings and superb control from the tutti string section. Bychkov held the silence after the perfectly controlled end to perfection – no easy matter with an audience usually suffused with noisy electronica and replete with bronchial ailments. In a conversation reproduced elsewhere, the Prague Philharmonic’s CEO David Mareček and General Manager Robert Hanc told me of similar phenomena – a Mahler 2 that hang in the air at its close, for example.

One of Bychkov’s traits is to find profundity in music via a penetration to the music’s core. What this means in practice is that extreme speeds are not necessary for emotional saturation. We heard that here in Shostakovich’s Eighth, and one can find it on disc in that new Tchaikovsky set with the finale of the ‘Pathétique’ – all of the depth of Bernstein’s later DG recording but none of the stasis.

This, it would appear, is a key appointment for both Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic; Bychkov’s rapport with the players is beyond doubt.

Colin Clarke

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