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.
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.