“Beloved Friend” is the term of endearment that Tchaikovsky used for Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy patron who supported him for years, enabling him to devote himself to composition. Despite an exchange of over 1200 letters, in which von Meck provided moral, as well as financial, support, they chose never to meet – it was a long distance friendship. Conductor Semyon Bychkov has had a long relationship with Tchaikovsky’s music and “Beloved Friend” is the title chosen for his series which travels to New York this January for concerts and related events with the New York Philharmonic spanning three weeks.

Semyon Bychkov © Chris Christodoulou
Semyon Bychkov
© Chris Christodoulou

Bychkov has prepared himself for this immersion by reading the letters between Tchaikovsky and von Meck and rethinking his approach to some of the more familiar scores. His project started with the Czech Philharmonic, with whom he is recording the complete symphonies, and three concerts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. The first disc released was the Sixth Symphony – the Pathétique – which Bychkov also conducted in London. Having heard that recording and reviewed his London performance, New York is in for a shock. Think you know the Pathétique? Think again.

It’s difficult to divorce the Sixth from our knowledge that nine days after its première, Tchaikovsky was dead. Its long, slow finale – an unusual way to end a symphony – peters out into nothing. Had the composer known death was so close? Was the Pathétique Tchaikovsky’s suicide note? Last summer, Bychkov explained to me that “The prevailing opinion about the meaning of the Pathétique's ending is that it is an acceptance, a resignation before death. This is what I thought when I grew up, until it dawned on me that it is really not so.” Going back to the manuscript score, Bychkov studied the metronome markings and realised that the tempo of the finale’s coda is much faster than one normally hears. “The tempo is not slow – it's practically a dance, except that it's now in a minor key.” Rather than slowing down inexorably, Bychkov keeps the tempo moving, until the music just stops. I’ve never heard a performance of the final movement so swift. “Life just stops. It cannot be resignation,” argues Bychkov, “it is something that comes abruptly, much too soon, and is a protest, not acceptance.”

The première of the Pathétique was the final concert Tchaikovsky conducted. Also on the programme that night was the Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor – another of the most familiar works in the classical repertoire. But the version that Tchaikovsky conducted that night isn’t the one with which audiences are most familiar. The concerto was witheringly dismissed by the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein in 1875. The composer, writing to von Meck, explained “It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar.”

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve
Kirill Gerstein
© Marco Borggreve
Tchaikovsky revised the concerto in 1879, making a small number of changes from the original. It is this version that has been championed by the Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein (in a 2015 critical Urtext edition published by the Tchaikovsky Museum in Klin) rather than the more usual third version, which was published after Tchaikovsky’s death. Sharp-eared listeners will spot changes from the very first piano entry, where the second and third beats of the famous opening chords are arpeggiated (spread rather than all the notes played together). This edition also opens out a cut which was later made in the third movement. Gerstein explains how “the editorial changes made to the third version added a flavor of superficial brilliance to the piece which at the same time took away from its genuine musical character. The new edition allows us to turn back to Tchaikovsky’s original intentions.” Tchaikovsky himself conducted this version in 1891 at the opening of Carnegie Hall. The performance by Gerstein and Bychkov will be the first time that New York has heard it since.

Among the less familiar Tchaikovsky works Bychkov includes in his series are the Manfred Symphony and the Second Piano Concerto. Manfred, inspired by Byron, is on the fringes of the regular concert repertory, but few conductors include it as part of a recorded symphony cycle. Manfred doesn’t have a successful reputation. Bychkov laughs when he explains that “Tchaikovsky didn't help when he wrote that he wanted to burn all of it except the first movement! So it's easy to say that because the composer himself hated it, then it must be no good. And it isn't true – it's a gigantic work.”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Bychkov feels that the neglect the Piano Concerto no. 2 in G major suffers is due to the runaway success of its predecesor. “The First is the guiding light of the concerto repertoire, so the Second Concerto simply could not find its own space. How do you follow that? It's not the first time in the history of creativity that something like that can happen. We know writers who publish their first novel who had such a hit that they were never able to match it. That doesn't mean that the rest wasn't any good. They say that history decides, but people make history and history is what we remember. So if a convincing performance of something like the Second Concerto would happen more frequently – not that we could ever forget the First Concerto – you can love more than one individual.” Yefim Bronfman is the pianist in the Second Concerto.

Music by Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries is also programmed in the series, as Bychkov was keen to add context. The composer admired the music of the young Rachmaninov, whose Vespers are performed by the Westminster Symphonic Choir in the Church of St Paul the Apostle. Bychkov opens his final concert with Sergei Taneyev’s overture The Oresteia. “Taneyev was one of those pupils closest to Tchaikovsky. Eventually, he became a close friend and often a very severe critic. It's amazing to see Tchaikovsky's reaction to criticism from Taneyev that was sometimes really powerful. And Tchaikovsky never took it badly. Sometimes he agreed, sometimes he didn't. And so Taneyev, being a very great artist in his own right, I thought it was really important to introduce him into the project.”

As well as the three concerts with the New York Philharmonic, the series includes a chamber and a choral concert, a song recital and an Insights at the Atrium evening at which Bychkov discusses his series. It offers a chance to both explore unfamiliar Tchaikovsky as well as to revisit the Tchaikovsky we thought we knew.

Click here to view events in Beloved Friend — Tchaikovsky and His World: A Philharmonic Festival. 


Article sponsored by the New York Philharmonic.