In concert – Soloists, CBSO Chorus, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov: Dvořák 8th symphony & Janáček Glagolitic Mass

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Dvořák Symphony no.8 in G major Op.88 (1891)
Janáček Glagolitic Mass (1928 version)

Evelina Dobračeva (soprano), Lucie Hislcherová (alto), Aleš Briscein (tenor), Boris Prýgl (bass), Daniela Valtová Kosinová (organ), CBSO Chorus, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov

Barbican Hall, London
Wednesday 16 March 2022

Written by Ben Hogwood Photo credits Petr Kadlec

To hear the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra play Dvořák is surely one of classical music’s great pleasures. It was Dvořák who conducted them in their first ever concert, and for the second instalment of their Barbican visit Semyon Bychkov chose to programme his Symphony no.8, a work surely written with the spring season in mind.

The Eighth gets a slightly raw deal, sandwiched in Dvořák’s published output between the critically acclaimed Seventh and the ubiquitous Ninth, the New World. This is a shame because the joyous melodies and persuasive dance rhythms are a celebration of life itself, the composer glorying in the outdoor spaces of the Bohemian countryside. Melodic invention abounds throughout the four movements, and this performance gave room to the delightful swagger of the outdoor tunes, while retaining an elegant, almost Schubertian profile. Perhaps unexpectedly there were also pointers towards early Sibelius, the vivid natural scenes laden with intensity and fulsome orchestration.

The Czech Philharmonic wind section were the stars of this performance, with a sunny flute in the opening pages and some outstanding clarinet playing in the Adagio. Not to be outdone, the strings offered a cushion of sound as springy as the forest floor itself, while bright trumpets energised the fanfare at the start of the finale. The elegance of the cellos’ theme at the start of the first movement and the violins’ graceful way with the Intermezzo were two of many memorable moments from the strings. Bychkov judged the work’s profile to perfection, and there were many smiles among orchestra and audience alike as each new melody made itself known.

A very different mood prevailed for the second half, where celebration came at a cost. Janáček‘s Glagolitic Mass remains a work of extraordinary intensity, stretching its performers to the limits of their range and veering wildly between adulation and strife.

The CBSO Chorus were on heroic form throughout. Superbly marshalled and prepared by chorus director Simon Halsey, organist Julian Wilkins and conductor / pianist Lada Valesova, they sang as one, nailing the tricky ‘Old Church Slavonic’ pronunciations with apparent ease – in particular the distinctive ‘Amin, amin’ refrain of the Gloria. The Credo, the beating heart of this piece, had a white-hot intensity while leaving room for interpretation on the composer’s own religious feelings. By contrast the miraculous chord on which the Agnus Dei often hangs was truly celestial, ideally voiced and weighted. Its introduction was chilling indeed, strings and brass icy to the touch.

The Glagolitic Mass is a tough gig for its four vocal soloists, who have little room in which to make an impact, but the quartet here largely caught its operatic dimensions. If soprano Evelina Dobračeva seemed a little withdrawn initially she soon found her footing. Tenor Aleš Briscein, the highest of high priests, was commendably secure in his intonation but appropriately edgy as Janáček’s writing pushed the limits of the vocal range. Boris Prýgl offered fulsome support as bass soloist, as did alto Lucie Hislcherová in her brief appearance. Organist Daniela Valtová Kosinová, on the other hand, made the most of her instrument’s crucial role, launching into a Postludium of fearsome strength and wildly irregular rhythm. The instrument was well balanced through the Barbican speaker system, Kosinová’s feet a whirl as they kept up with Janáček’s demanding bass part, before those two damning final chords of the crucifixion. Bychkov encouraged the feverish violins through an Intrada that, while ultimately triumphant, only heightened the searing intensity of what had gone before.

Both these national statements felt so appropriate for the times, celebrating freedom of movement but also the power – and cost – of faith. As with the first night performances Bychkov eloquently dedicated the music to the people of Ukraine, before a performance of the country’s national anthem. It is hard to think of two more appropriate or contrasting accounts, and the Czech Philharmonic and their principal conductor deserve the utmost credit for two nights of unrivalled artistic brilliance.

You can listen to the repertoire in this concert by using the Spotify playlist below, which includes the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra‘s recent recordings of both works for Decca, made under their previous and sadly missed principal conductor Jiří Bělohlávek:

In concert – Yuja Wang, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov: Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no.1 & Smetana Má Vlast

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Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no.1 in F sharp minor Op.1 (1891, rev.1917)
Smetana Má Vlast (1874-82)

Yuja Wang (piano, above), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov

Barbican Hall, London
Tuesday 15 March 2022

Written by Ben Hogwood Photo credits Petr Kadlec

This was the first visit by an overseas orchestra to the Barbican since the coronavirus pandemic began, one of many reasons for the buzz of anticipation accompanying the arrival of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and their principal conductor Semyon Bychkov.

Their two-night residency began with the first published notes from Rachmaninoff, a call to arms signalling intent at the start of his Piano Concerto no.1. With the athletic piano playing of Yuja Wang, this was a sure way of getting the concert off to a high octane start. Hers was a virtuoso performance, seizing the music by the scruff of the neck early on but also bringing impressive clarity to her melodic phrasing, so that among even the more congested orchestral writing her line could be clearly heard.

The balance between soloist and orchestra was ideal throughout and proved especially satisfying in the Andante cantabile second movement, where the volume dipped to a mere whisper. Is it too fanciful to suggest that audience coughing is now much less since we returned to live music? Certainly, the Barbican was almost completely silent in response to Wang’s absorbing and feather-light playing, and her dovetailing with the eloquent bassoon of Ondřej Šindelář was a delight.

The finale returned us to the raw power of the first movement, but both Wang and Bychkov ensured the melodies still held sway, the latter marshalling the orchestra with effortless command but keeping a tight ensemble. Wang’s fingers and hands were a blur at times, as she somehow brought the most complicated passagework under her wings without missing a beat or a phrase. Her dedication was wholehearted and her love for the piece was clearly shared by the orchestra, who were smiling readily. Rachmaninov’s first and underplayed utterance was well served indeed.

After the interval Bychkov (above), born in Russia, spoke eloquently about the current situation with his home country, dedicating the performance of Smetana’s Má Vlast to the people of Ukraine. He noted the unplanned but happy coincidence brought by programming one of Romantic music’s most heartfelt patriotic statements on this night. Written to bring pride and inspiration to the Czech people, Smetana’s rousing set of six symphonic poems could not have wished for a more fitting performance here.

The lofty construction of Vyšehrad was led off with expansive harps tracing the building’s lofty lines, the music growing in stature as the rest of the orchestra joined. Bychkov’s pacing in this noble movement was ideal, a powerfully wrought performance with tasteful phrasing. The same could certainly be said for Vltava, whose depiction of the river bubbling up was wonderfully exuberant. The wind section clearly enjoyed their vivid profile of the waters and their surrounds, with no obvious pause for breath as the current gained in power. There was a persuasive lilt to the rhythmic profile of the music too. This was felt especially in the peasant dance section, Bychkov encouraging the strings to dig their bows in, dragging the beat tastefully. It was glorious fun.

If anything, this performance grew stronger and leaner as it progressed. Šárka drew sharp parallels with Liszt, whose symphonic poems Smetana was looking to emulate, telling the story of the female warrior with sharp rhythmic snaps and the tightest possible ensemble. From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, by contrast, was a glorious celebration of the countryside, its fugal episodes bouncing off each other before the colourful village festival took hold. By this point the orchestra had unexpectedly carried out a series of substitutions, the wind section effectively replaced halfway through. It says so much for their function as a team that the overall sound was not affected.

Both wind sections stood out in this performance, stylish and authentic, but the finer details to this interpretation impressed greatly. The percussion, for instance, took such great care with their cymbal and triangle contributions, the shading just right and complementing Smetana’s fulsome melodic writing, made all the remarkable with the reminder that he had lost his hearing by this point.

The final pairing of Tábor and Blaník proved every bit as dramatic as Šárka, the orchestral sound given a renewed heft through powerful strings, rolling timpani and fulsome brass. There was a stern countenance to Tábor’s opening pages, and the Hussite tune dominating these two poems had a lasting resolve which carried unmistakable parallels to the current situation. The final pages of Blaník were thrilling, recalling Vyšehrad in blazing colour before Bychkov signed off emphatically.

There were no encores in the concert, and nor were they needed, for this was a wholly memorable occasion, a true privilege to say, ‘I was there’.

You can listen to the repertoire in this concert by using the Spotify playlist below, which includes the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra‘s recent recording of Má vlast, made with their previous and sadly missed principal conductor Jiří Bělohlávek:

LSO: Always Playing – Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony tonight @ 7.30pm

A real treat lies in store tonight in the form of Mahler‘s Symphony no.2, the Resurrection – and you can sing along.

This stream from the London Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Semyon Bychkov (above), with vocal soloists Christiane Karg (soprano) and Ana Larsson (contralto).

The London Symphony Chorus and their director Simon Halsey provide the incredibly uplifting choral passages in the fifth and final movement – and you too can take part! For one night only the vocal score for the Resurrection is free to download, by following the link from the LSO website here

You could even pause the action at the end of the first movement, clap for the UK’s NHS staff, carers and delivery drivers, and resume after the ‘interval’. The performance, from Sunday 4 February 2018, can be seen on the orchestra’s YouTube channel from 7.15pm tonight here:

Semyon Bychkov photo credit: Umberto Nicoletti

All the trimmings – more musical releases of 2019 that are worth your time

Are you sitting comfortably? Ready to put your feet up for Christmas (or at least some of it?!) Arcana definitely is, but before we go we wanted to share with you some more musical discoveries that have happened across the year. These are the new releases we have not had time to cover properly until now, but which we think deserve a word or 100.

Think of it like the snacks you get out at Christmas once work has finished. So here, in one very varied block of music, are our extra recommendations from the musical year:

Our first classical port of call is Semyon Bychkov’s Tchaikovsky Project with the Czech Philharmonic. This is a cycle of Tchaikovsky’s seven symphonies (counting Manfred) and the Piano Concertos, with Kirill Gerstein. It is a very attractive set, providing the timely reminder that the early symphonies, while different from the blood and thunder 4-6, carry plenty of musical substance and charm.

In the first, Winter Daydreams, Bychkov gets to the essence of the scherzo by performing it slightly slower than most, but it has a really attractive and graceful lilt. The Second, Little Russian, is a beauty, while the much underrated Polish Symphony (no.3) is a treat, the first movement with a spring in its step as it makes the most of Tchaikovsky’s catchy theme. While repeated a good deal, the freshness of Bychkov’s phrasing helps enormously.

The Fourth is not as high voltage as some performances in the catalogue, but the Fifth Symphony gets a really good performance, from the clarinet solo at the start to the soaring violins at the climax of the slow movement. The Pathétique is excellent too, superbly paced and phrased if perhaps lacking the ultimate tragedy of the final movement.

Manfred, however, is next level, strings as one in the swooning phrase of the first movement, setting up a highly dramatic reading. The closing climax of the first movement is feverish, with a string tone to die for – and this approach encapsulates the whole account of a symphony that now ranks among Tchaikovsky’s finest works.

On a very different plain is a box of Frans Brüggen’s complete recordings of Rameau Suites, made with the Orchestra of the 18th Century on Glossa. These are almost self-recommending, eight beautifully constructed bodies of work from the composer’s stage works that are full of incident and character – and not just local. Rameau, as well as being a keen melodist, was keen on expanding his horizons and the likes of Les Indes Galantes look far afield to Native America for their inspiration. Listen to Air pour les Sauvages towards the end of the suite for an idea of how Brüggen puts a spring in the step of this music, or any of the thrilling overtures, often littered with bracing percussion:

A couple of Khachaturian releases from the enterprising CPO label have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. They are numbers two and three in a series cataloguing the Armenian composer’s works for solo instrument and orchestra. Last year Stepan Simonian fronted a recording of the Piano Concerto, but this year’s releases see Torleif Thedéen giving the Cello Concerto a terrific reading, and an expansive account of the Concerto Rhapsody.

The Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie are conducted by Daniel Raiskin – as they are on a disc of the Violin Concerto and Concerto Rhapsody, where the soloist is the superb Antje Weithaas. The second movement of the concerto is particularly winsome, a gently rocking triple time movement that becomes the tender heart of the piece.

Another recording of Romantic music from the East comes from Ondine, with a really valuable second disc of the orchestral works of Hans Eller. Eller is one of the founding fathers of Estonian classical music, recognised for his huge influence by no less a composer than Arvo Pärt, who he taught. Pärt noted his ‘fine and masterful orchestration, and a highly-defined personal manner. These characteristics place him on the level with the great Nordic composers’. The quartet of symphonic poems on show here is led by strongly characterised portrayals of Twilight and Dawn from the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under Olari Elts, with the substantial White Night Suite and Night Calls for company.

Finally Saint-Saëns, surely one of the most Christmassy of composers. This year the Utah Symphony and Thierry Fischer have been on a voyage through the French composer’s five symphonies for Hyperion, which means welcome airings for the Urbs Roma and excellent First and Second Symphonies, as well as the ubiquitous Organ Symphony. They also find space for the Carnival of the Animals and Danse macabre in superb performances that benefit from Hyperion’s customarily excellent recordings. If you have never heard it before, I highly recommend the disc with the first two symphonies, influenced by Mendelssohn but already showing the French composer’s mastery of melody – or the Carnival of the Animals, for a freshly-minted account:

A couple more electronic recommendations for you now, beginning with a remarkable trilogy of albums from Swedish producer Mr. Tophat. Dusk To Dawn Parts I-III, released on Twilight Enterprise, may be something of a sprawling epic, but within it you will find brilliant collaborations rooted in disco-house, featuring the likes of Robyn, Axel Boman and Kleerup. There is some extraordinary music here, none more so than the quarter-hour epic Tears Of Illuminations. This is the music we wanted Lindstrøm to come out with later in the year!

Meanwhile one of the albums of the year is surely Barker’s Utility, where producer Sam Barker has come up with something really special for Ostgut Ton. All too often electronic albums sound exactly the sum of their parts, processed within an inch of their lives and allowing very little room for the human in them to express itself. Barker is different, and from the opening pulses of this album it is clear something rather special is afoot. Paradise Engineering celebrates the processed nature of this music with warm sounds and syncopated rhythms, the mind actually forgetting the almost complete absence of a kick drum. There is enough movement here for the feet to be sorely tempted. Such treatment continues through to the expansive closing track Die-Hards Of The Darwinian Order.

To say Underworld are in a rich creative streak would be like saying that Manchester City score a lot of goals. We know that it happens, but explaining just how it’s done is not quite as easy.

DRIFT, released on their own Smith Hyde Productions via Universal, is the result of a year-long challenge, where Karl Hyde and Rick Smith vowed to write new music every week. Yet as you listen to each offering it is quite clear that rather than being a hindrance this task brought out the best in both of them. There is nigh on six hours’ music here, and having started off with relatively small units the duo find they are churning out half-hour electronic symphonies like Appleshine Continuum, a remarkable piece of work with The Necks that dips on and off the beat with warm improvisation.

The sheer variety on DRIFT is inspiring, and helps it work as a continuous listen for however you want it to last. Dune, at the start of the third disc, is one of the most relaxed tracks they’ve ever done, soft and ruminative, Hyde in a contented place. Custard Speedtalk feels like it takes place on the great plains, with taillights stretching out as far as the eye can see. Contrast that with Another Silent Way, which has a hammering kick drum over which it progresses to a euphoric piece of layered dance music.

Of the many highlights it is worth picking out Brilliant Yes That Would Be, a really good beatless interlude that has its shredded guitar calmed by cool chords, before switching to stationary piano. The triumvirate of Another Silent Way / Drift Poem / Better Than Diamonds is really strong, Hyde instinctively finding descriptive vignettes over another pounding beat and long, held chord combination that has served Underworld so well, shifting shapes in the way that Pearls Girl did so well.

Molehill is an attractive number that shows if proof were needed that Underworld don’t need beats to create an atmosphere. This is more like a Bibio offcut, drifting through the consciousness like a light meditation. Threat Of Rain gets back on the quick horse though, chugging along at a good pace.

The Underworld horse is one that rewards consistent backing, here more than ever. There is a huge amount of listening on DRIFT, but such is their form that pretty much everything here is a surefire winner.

With all that said, I hope there is something here for you to enjoy if you haven’t already encountered it. Here at Arcana we look forward to bringing you a lot more cross-genre musical talk next year, and hope you will take something from it. Happy Christmas, have a brilliant 2020 and see you for more discoveries!

Ben Hogwood

BBC Symphony Orchestra & Semyon Bychkov – Beloved Friend: Tchaikovsky Project

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Richard Whitehouse on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov (above) in the second of their Tchaikovsky-themed concerts

Tchaikovsky Serenade for strings in C major, Op. 48 (1880)

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major, Op. 75 (1893)

Taneyev Overture: The Oresteia, Op.6 (1889)

Tchaikovsky Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876)

Kirill Gerstein (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov

Barbican Hall, London; Monday 24 October

The Beloved Friend series being curated by Semyon Bychkov provides a revealing overview of Tchaikovsky through some lesser performed works. Not the least of which is the Serenade for strings that, though its individual movements emerge frequently on radio, is not so often encountered in concert. Too short to occupy a second or even first half, it makes for a lengthy yet viable opening item when, as tonight, a full-sized string section is deployed with panache.

Bychkov ensured a fervent response in the first movement, its animated main sections framed by the rhetorical motto theme that ultimately returns as an apotheosis, then found suavity as well as elegance in the Waltz. Despite lack of inwardness, the Elegy yielded real clarity in its denser passages, while the Finale proceeded briskly yet characterfully to its resolute close.

kirill-gersteinNext followed a rare revival of the Third Piano Concerto, itself reworked from an abandoned symphony and what would doubtless have become a three-movement entity had Tchaikovsky completed its Andante and Finale to his satisfaction prior to his death (these latter, as realized posthumously by Taneyev, make an effective whole – as Alexander Markovich demonstrated in a Royal Festival Hall account eight years ago).

As a stand-alone piece, the Allegro brillante (best known in its ballet incarnation by George Balanchine) unfolds a quirky and characterful sonata design – its themes distinctive for their emotional restraint, with a stealthy interplay between piano and orchestra that Kirill Gerstein (above) audibly relished. Momentum faltered marginally after a scintillating cadenza, but the final pages strode onwards to a decisive if peremptory ending.

Overall, a convincing account of music which warrants greater exposure. Hopefully Gerstein will yet tackle this work’s three-movement incarnation: for now, he returned for a reading of Méditation – the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s Op. 72 collection – that oozed eloquence and poise.

More discussed than played in the West, Sergey Taneyev was as least as much a composer as pedagogue; a notable output of orchestral and chamber music capped by his ambitious opera The Oresteia. Beginning life as this latter’s introduction, the present overture expanded into an autonomous entity that surveys the opera’s dramatic content and is an eventful symphonic poem in its own right. Its complementary halves representing an archetypal ‘war and peace’ in dramatic as well as musical terms, the piece is harmonically questing and often texturally adventurous – not least in its extensive though never self-conscious writing for harps. Some 15 years after Taneyev last enjoyed a fair measure of exposure in London, Bychkov directed a fastidious performance to remind listeners that they are the poorer for this music’s neglect.

Even in an era intent on ‘concerto and symphony’ programming, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini has never lacked for performances – this symphonic fantasia mingling drama with pathos to a heady degree even for this composer. Bychkov accordingly upped the ante in the tempestuous opening, then secured a suitably rapt response from woodwind and strings in the central section depicting Paolo and Francesca. Its balletic continuation drifted as is often the case, but the final pages portrayed the hapless lovers’ descent into hell with unerring ferocity.

Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast in Afternoon on 3, and available for 30 days thereafter via the Radio 3 website