Is it too early to coin the phrase “the Bychkov effect”? These are busy times for the restless Semyon Bychkov, who, as well as starting his second season as Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, has just completed his multi-season Tchaikovsky Project and is now commencing a new Mahler recording cycle. But this concert, a repeat of last week’s season opener in Prague, was all about the power of the live performance, something that even the most accomplished recording engineer cannot fully achieve. With striking contrasts between the two halves, Bychkov brought us the spice of life, unabashed romance and the bitterness of human survival, all through Czech and Russian eyes. In short, this concert packed quite a punch.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Despite having a more international sound these days, it was pleasing to hear that the Czech Philharmonic has still retained its characteristic warmth, lyricism and rawness, displayed here with exceptional prowess, and that it has also kept steadfastly close to its roots. Opening with Smetana, Bychkov galloped merrily through the Overture and Three Dances from The Bartered Bride with more than a little gusto, the orchestra displaying gritty attack while Bychkov created nice contrasts between the rustic skipping, articulate and precisely played, and the smooth legatos, with particularly fine solos from the singing trumpets. At once, you could see that the players were as animated as the conductor – always a good sign.

With the concert-masters alternating between pieces, the orchestra was then joined by young Russian soprano, Elena Stikhina, making her UK debut in Tatyana’s Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. This was a highly impressive and absorbing performance, with the versatility and dramatic thrust of Stikhina’s well-rounded and luminous lirico-spinto exuding both strength and vulnerability, and with superb clarity of diction and fine control across all registers. Above all, Stikhina was communicative and expressive in telling her story, with Bychkov and the orchestra supporting the narrative sensitively with warm sweeping strings and melting oboe and horn solos.

Elena Stikhina
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

After the interval, there was a shock to the system. Written in 1943, Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony is the composer’s most vivid and personal expression of “the terrible tragedy of the war”. Bychkov produced a powerful and compelling performance, with intense and fully committed playing by the orchestra, overwhelming at times not only in its sonic impact but also its emotional charge. Bleak undercurrents were maintained from the very beginning, and the expansive first movement climaxed in terrifying ways, shrill and chilling, and with the players straining at the very extremes of their instruments.

Bychkov continued to blaze Shostakovich’s trail of horror and hope with a sardonic bite to the incessant march-like Scherzo of the second movement, the piquant piccolo deserving a special mention, and a relentless acidic aggression to the third movement, building crescendo after crescendo as though stretching sanity to its limits. He was masterful in carefully shaping individual phrases within Shostakovich’s extended melodic lines, something that he produced to extraordinary effect in the desolate emptiness of the fourth movement, the composer’s profound reflection on the physical and emotional cost, before finally, after much searching, transitioning to C major for the final movement. This darkness-to-light journey, however, was bittersweet, and Bychkov revealed the ambiguity of the optimism in the final pages with ominously still strings and a haunting, isolated flute solo. This work is not really about triumph, but simply survival, and it is hard-hitting. From Bychkov’s long pause at the end, this clearly meant something.