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The Czech Phil rockin' out at the Rudolfinum

Von , 16 Dezember 2021

The affinity for Russian music that conductor Semyon Bychkov brought to the Czech Philharmonic has added a new dimension to the orchestra’s sound and repertoire – and an occasional surprise. To open a bracing double bill of Shostakovich and Rachmaninov, Bychkov led a piece written and dedicated to him by an American rock star, Bryce Dessner. The meeting of two musical worlds never sounded so good.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

Dessner is a multifaceted musician who plays guitar in The National and composes contemporary classical music and film scores. Before the pandemic lockdown, he wrote a concerto for two pianos for Katia and Marielle Labèque (the latter is Bychkov’s wife), which the Czech Philharmonic performed earlier this year – to an empty hall, live-streaming the concert. So Bychkov was keen to present Dessner’s music properly, and his one-movement orchestral piece Mari is a beauty, a neoclassical stroll through the forests of French Basque country, where the two men originally met.

Bychkov took some of the usual edge off his style and slipped into pastoral mode, highlighting the glimmering strings and woodwinds, following the melodic flow and bringing descriptive passages to life with vibrant colors. You could almost see the sunlight dappling through the trees. A relaxed tempo and careful control of wide-ranging dynamics enhanced the idyllic atmosphere.

Back to serious business with Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, Bychkov immediately set a somber, brooding tone in the orchestra that was matched by soloist Karen Gomyo. Her “Ex Foulis” Stradivarius has a dark sound that was perfect for the piece, and she played with a quiet intensity that captured its admixture of angst, depth and daring. With Bychkov providing a throbbing, hypnotic pulse behind her, Gomyo smoldered with restrained passion in the first movement, then took off with him in a blistering second movement, firing off sharp lines like knife blades. 

Karen Gomyo and the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

The cadenza that connects the third and fourth movements gave Gomyo an opportunity to show superb technical skills which were at times incongruously cool, almost clinical. That robbed her sound of some dimension – though to be fair, what the piece really calls for is stamina. That cadenza is fiendishly complex, and segues directly into the demanding, furious pace of the final movement. Gomyo just seemed to pick up more energy as the pressure mounted, mounting a brilliant, anguished voice against a deep, imposing orchestra. She and Bychkov connected on an instinctive level that brought the concerto to a tight, razor-edged finish and the audience to its feet.

The storm abated with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, which were surprisingly light and animated – or maybe just seemed that way after the Sturm und Drang of Shostakovich. Either way, the approach was striking. The Dances were the last piece Rachmaninov wrote, when mortality was weighing heavily on him. But there was none of that in this interpretation, which brimmed with life and vitality. A rambunctious first movement set a festive tone, and in the second Bychkov found jazz accents to open and then, remarkably, a melodic lilt that could have passed for a Strauss waltz. The third movement is packed with sound effects that Bychkov put to effective and entertaining use, especially the whimsical concluding gong.

For all that, the most impressive aspect of the piece was Bychkov’s masterful control. Though spirited and often fast-paced, the music had room to breathe, allowing the many small details to show through. And the rhythms were infectious. Composed a generation before rock ’n’ roll burst on the scene and took over the world, under Bychkov’s baton it was music that made you want to get up and dance. 

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Veranstaltung anzeigen
“Bychkov took some of the usual edge off his style and slipped into pastoral mode”
Rezensierte Veranstaltung: Rudolfinum: Dvořák Hall, Prague, am 15 Dezember 2021
Dessner, Mari (world premiere)
Schostakowitsch, Violinkonzert Nr. 1 in a-Moll, Op.77 oder Op.99
Rachmaninow, Symphonische Tänze für Orchester, Op.45
Semyon Bychkov, Dirigent
Karen Gomyo, Violine
Mitreißender Schostakowitsch von der Tschechischen Philharmonie
Khatia Buniatishvili spielt mit feiner aber bestimmter Art in Düsseldorf
An auspicious debut for John Adams at Prague Spring
Das Paradies und die Peri: scintillating Schumann in Prague
Semyon Bychkov leads an electric evening at the Rudolfinum
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