In 2010, when Semyon Bychkov stepped down as Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra, he made clear that guest conducting was quite enough for him and he had no intention of taking up another chief conductorship. But from the start of the 2018-9 season, he has been Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic. What happened to persuade this hired gun to settle down?

Semyon Bychkov
© Marco Borggreve

“In 2013, they asked me to do the Tchaikovsky cycle for Decca with them. It took a few seconds for me to have the instinct that it would be a very interesting combination, because of how they are – East and West together. When we started, in June 2015, there was absolutely no thought of any kind of association other than this project. Jiři [Bělohlávek] was well, he was doing fantastic work with them. Then, sadly, he developed his cancer and two years later, he was gone. Immediately after he passed away – it was the week of farewell – I came here for my own concerts. At the end of the performance, I go back to my room, suddenly the doors open and they all come in and the leader makes a speech and he says they would like me to be their music director and chief conductor and “we want you to be our daddy”. They voted 100% – how often do you see that? And it was that thing about “daddy” that broke my resolve not to take another position after 2010.”

In our globalised era where everyone can hear everyone else and is influenced by everyone else, Bychkov argues that the Czech Philharmonic is one of a handful of orchestras which have a distinctive sound – the half dozen others include the Royal Concertgebouw, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Cleveland (“even though it’s a very different animal”). The others may be of high quality, but “it’s not a question of quality, it’s a question of identity. There’s a certain sameness. The Czech Phil had their own tradition from an earlier time: how they play their instruments, what the instruments should sound like. You can hear it in the string sound, in the wind sound.”

Bychkov actively discusses this with the musicians and complains if the sound is “not our sound”. But there are limits to this when working with non-Czech repertoire. We’re talking on the morning after a Czech Phil concert which started with Smetana and Tchaikovsky before moving on to Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. In the Tchaikovsky, I suggest, they’re on safe ground, and Bychkov agrees: “Tchaikovsky was adored in this country, in his time. There's an amazing letter where he describes how he came to Czechoslovakia. His train stopped in a station somewhere provincial on the way to Prague, and there was a crowd of local citizens who heard that he was passing through and came to greet him. Then he arrives in Prague, he steps off the train and in front of him is another huge crowd of the locals that came to greet him: they lifted him up in their arms and carried him. So for the Czech Phil, as you say, Tchaikovsky is native territory. Shostakovich is something else. Shostakovich, whatever you may say, requires other means of expression, for example the brutality.”

Semyon Bychkov conducting the Czech Philharmonic
© Marco Borggreve

“So I talked a lot about it in the last days, because they do not have the tradition of Shostakovich. And it's a music which is frightening to many because it hits so close to home: who wants to have Soviet tanks arriving here in Prague? They saw those tanks. They realise how true the music is, it is not just about the Russian experience for the Russians, it is about the human experience, and they lived it. Is there any difference between the pain that imprisoned Czech people felt and the pain in the gulag? None. And I told them this. They could relate to it, and it was amazing to see how deep they found it, what a revelation.”

The Czech Phil is a big touring orchestra, with the 2019-20 season including performances in Tokyo, Vienna, Moscow, Nanjing and various venues in Japan. During the tour, Bychkov is conducting Smetana’s Má vlast. This is a country entrusting him with its most treasured heirloom. Isn’t that scary? “Oh, yes, absolutely! Má vlast is the bible here as Verdi would be to the Italians. But I never conducted it, not even Moldau, and I never studied it. So I said that before I touch the piece with them, I have to have a position on it, and I scheduled performances elsewhere and started last January, first Cologne, then Hamburg, Madrid, Amsterdam and Cleveland. The fact is, I really plunged into the piece and it became an obsession.” Even having overcome the many technical challenges, Bychkov still struggled to understand why the piece was capable of creating such obsession in him, concluding that the concepts of homeland and belonging have a universal appeal: everybody has an ideal of their homeland as they would wish it to be.

Bychkov and the Czech Phil have just come to the end of their “Tchaikovsky Project”, a seven CD set including the complete symphonies and piano concertos, recorded at their Prague home, the Rudolfinum, a hall whose shape is unusual: relatively short front-to-back, with a parterre raked between steep walls. Unusual or not, Bychkov says that it’s an amazing place to play and record, both with a live audience (as was done for the piano concertos) and without (as for the symphonies and other works). His reference concert hall is Vienna's Musikverein (“that’s what you want to hear”) and everywhere else comes as “a shock to the nervous system, because it will never sound that good”... but not the Rudolfinum. “There is something about sound in that place that is so warm and so beautiful, and the place itself as well, so recording at the Rudolfinum is absolutely colossal.”

Bychkov and the Czech Phil in rehearsal at the Rudolfinum
© Marco Borggreve

The one question was whether the Rudolfinum would cope with larger scale repertoire such as Shostakovich and Mahler. In preparation for this, when the Czech Phil started rehearsing the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony which opened the 2018-9 season, the front row of seats was removed to make way for an extension of the stage. It worked instantly, and the hall was even able to absorb the immense sound of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben: “with other halls, playing for example Le Sacre du printemps or Mahler’s Third, you reach a certain level where you hit the wall and you cannot go beyond it. In the Rudolfinum, I do not have this feeling. We’re incredibly privileged to be here.”

This especially matters because a Mahler cycle is the orchestra’s next recording project. There have been so many Mahler recordings in recent years that I ask what Bychkov can bring to the table that is new or different. “You know, I'm not an opera stage director who feels that to do Traviata, you have to put it on the moon. The point is not to bring something new that no-one has ever done before, because everything has been done. The music remains and each one of us coming to it must develop a position on it. The one thing which fascinates me is that the world does not remember, or does not wish to consider, that Mahler was born here. How many people ever think of Mahler being a Czech composer? When we started to rehearse the “Resurrection” Symphony, from the first minutes of the first reading, I said ‘Ha - it’s authentic in spirit’. That was amazing, because they're not playing it every week, but they’re at home in that sound world of his – it’s the sound world of Kafka’s literature.”

When he joined the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov insisted on something that had not recently been important to them: that they commission new music. There are now fourteen new commissions in progress, nine of them by Czech composers (one of the other five, a symphony by Detlev Glanert, is on a text by Kafka). He doesn’t underestimate the task of selling new music to classical audiences: he talks about “the tragedy of classical music of the 20th century, because the connection between music and its audience has become broken” and “the arrogance of those who defended the kind of music that only their mother could love”, branding anyone who didn’t like their work as stupid and uneducated. His own conversion came through getting to know Luciano Berio, who had written a double piano concerto for Katia and Marielle Labèque (Marielle is Bychkov’s wife). At his first listening to the concerto, on LP at Marielle’s home, he could not make head nor tail of the score and felt humiliated and angry – “this is not music!” A few years later, at a concert in Cleveland with the Labèques playing under Berio’s baton, “something happened inside me that I could not understand or grasp, but I felt something”. That initial emotional reaction is crucial, he believes: only if a piece touches you in the first place do you become interested in how it is made and in learning its language.

I put it to him that as a conductor, his job is to ensure that as many people in the audience as possible are touched in this way. “It’s absolutely true. That will only happen if I am touched by it, if I’m obsessed by it. Imagine that we are on the street in New York or Shanghai where you have huge high rise buildings, with thousands of people walking by. If I stop at a given moment and start looking up at something very intently, within minutes there will be a crowd around me looking also. It's like a virus. So if I present music to an audience and they see that I have a commitment to it, that I am touched by it, they will be too.”

Semyon Bychkov in rehearsal
© Marco Borggreve
Conductor personalities come on a scale from dictatorial taskmaster to cuddly, collegiate team-builder. Where does Bychkov see himself on that scale? “I’m right in between. Quality of performance is not negotiable. To be cuddly is wonderful and people want to give their best, but if you don’t help them by explaining how they can give their best, it's not going to help.The tension comes from the fact that it's difficult. It's really hard. So you practise. What do the footballers do, the athletes, the ballet dancers? They train and train and train. And once in a while, they are blessed by somebody upstairs and suddenly they are free to do something they never thought they could: they are amazed and so are we, receiving it from them. Everyone can accept this kind of very hard effort and dedication if the person feels respected and not used.” He compares those heights of achievement to the football of Brazil in the days of Pele or the tiki-taka of Barcelona where every player knows, apparently telepathically, what their team-mate is about to do next: “Music is completely the same when done collectively”. His musicians have been known to complain about merciless amounts of drilling, but he would be clearly unrepentant: “we discuss, and yes, we'll repeat it seventy-three times because there may be thirty-seven possibilities of phrasing the same sentence and you have to try thirty-seven to say this one feels most convincing”.

Do he and Marielle manage to escape from music when they get home? “We don’t even want to! Of course, it doesn't mean that we only talk about that, no. We share our life in every way, and not only by music. Yes, we will talk about everything from demonstrations in Moscow to the Brexit situation to Mr Trump surprising us once again with just how inelegant someone can be – I use a very diplomatic language – but in the end, we never try to escape from music because we don't need to. We have no hobbies, by the way…”

You can find details of the Czech Philharmonic's season here, including their upcoming residencies in Tokyo in October and Paris and Vienna in November as they perform works from their Tchaikovsky project.

This interview was sponsored by the Czech Philharmonic