Tchaikovsky has a special place in the heart of Russians. Semyon Bychkov caught the bug at school. “Two of the professors we had were very close friends: one was teaching music literature, the other one teaching literature,” he recalls. “They would co-ordinate what they were covering with us – at that particular point it was Pushkin and Tchaikovsky – Onegin, Queen of Spades – and I remember very vividly the discussions about Onegin; for example, debates about Tatyana at the end, whether she made a mistake in not following her heart because of her idea of loyalty to her husband. The debates were very violent – there were only boys in our class and as you can imagine, boys can get very heated. We were teenagers and it truly mattered a lot to us!”

Semyon Bychkov © Musacchio Ianniello
Semyon Bychkov
© Musacchio Ianniello

Bychkov is now one of the world’s great Tchaikovsky conductors. In Covent Garden’s Onegin last season, he drew out burnished, melancholic warmth from the strings. Those performances saw him reunited with Dmitri Hvorostovsky for the first time since their 1992 Paris recording. “Hvorostovsky is one of those artists who manages to create the most complete, truthful portraits of Onegin. If you add to that the conditions in which he returned to the role – he was fighting for his life – it made it so meaningful and so emotional.”

The Queen of Spades is another opera that he feels compelled to conduct again, but in the meantime the symphonies become his focus as he launches his Tchaikovsky Project – concert series in London and New York, plus a recording project with the Czech Philharmonic.

Inevitably, Evgeny Mravinsky was an early influence on the young Bychkov. “Growing up and seeing someone like Mravinsky, who had been leading the Leningrad Philharmonic for fifty years by then (the 1960s and early 70s when I left the Soviet Union), it was not so much what he did, it was so much how he did it. It was a never-ending search for expression and for quality in the relatively restricted repertoire that he conducted in his last decades. They would be rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth which they had not only in their blood, but in every cell of their body, yet Mravinsky was still working on it for several days before performing it again, sometimes more than once in a season.”

Bychkov’s teacher Ilya Musin was a huge influence, as was Nikolai Rabinovich, Musin's colleague at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, although temperamentally very different. Then there were visiting orchestras and conductors. “Karajan came in 1969 with the Berliners – jaws dropped when we heard them perform Shostakovich 10! It was very true to the spirit and that's what was so astonishing because I think Russians, with Russian music like Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich, or Italians with Verdi, or the English with Elgar, one believes that one is the owner of that thing which is part of your own culture, your own repertoire, and nobody else – however good – can really get to the heart of it. Karajan’s Shostakovich was a huge shock to the nervous system, which makes you think that, after all, human talent, real talent, simply doesn't recognise any borders.”

Bychkov’s Tchaikovsky Project, featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the New York and Czech Philharmonics is like a total immersion for the conductor and has already meant a reassessment of the music. “When you live with something which you also happen to love, you assume a lot of things and take them for granted. But when you have to immerse yourself specifically, then a lot has to be re-thought and one has to inform oneself.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, by Nikolai Kuznetsov (1893)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, by Nikolai Kuznetsov (1893)
“At the moment I am doing a lot of reading, for example his correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck who was one of those souls who understood him in a way that was amazing considering that they never met! Then, there was Modest, his brother, and also people whose names mean nothing today, yet who were important in his life. Vassily Sapelnikov played Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto in Hamburg in 1888 – it was his debut and Tchaikovsky was conducting. In 1909, Sapelnikov wrote his remembrances of Tchaikovsky and there are quotes there about the last time that he saw the composer in June of 1893, six months before Tchaikovsky passed away.

“Sapelnikov said that Tchaikovsky had not a shadow of desire to pose. He was sincerity itself. Reading accounts of other people who knew him closely, a multisided personality emerges. On the one hand, a man who was incredibly joyful, who really loved the company of people and was very kind and really loved life. Then there is another side, of a man who is very alone, full of anxiety, a very tortured person. The man was like his music – I said this in rehearsal yesterday to my colleagues in Prague – I shared with them what I'm finding out about him, and I said “the man was sincerity itself” quoting Sapelnikov. We must play his music like he was. It's not enough to just play beautiful notes,”

Semyon Bychkov © Sheila Rock
Semyon Bychkov
© Sheila Rock
Alongside classics such as the Sixth Symphony, Bychkov is programming less performed works: Manfred, the Second and Third Piano Concertos, alongside music by Tchaikovsky’s friends and students, Taneyev and Rachmaninov. With a more familiar work, such as the Pathétique, how has Bychkov’s interpretation changed over the years? “It has changed because as we go through life, we change, under the experience of living. So you look at the same object when you are, let's say, sixteen, and you look at the same object when you are 63, as I am today. The object is the same, but the person who is looking at it has lived. And so, naturally, it will evolve. It will sometimes evolve radically.

“I'll give you an example. 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. When one looks at the actual score, and looks at the coda of the last movement, what do we see? First of all, he provides us with metronome indications for the tempi – and they are absolutely his because they are in the manuscript.

“The metronome indication of the coda is faster than one normally hears. The theme itself is the second theme from the last movement, except that when it comes the first time, we hear it in D major. When it returns, we hear it in B minor. Exactly the same theme. And the tempo is exactly the same as the first time he writes it. The tempo is not slow – it's practically a dance, except that it's now in a minor key. Once you start with this knowledge, and then you see the sforzandi in the celli and basses that come crushing until the whole thing disintegrates. Once you see that the final chord of the piece, when the triplets stop, they continue to play after the final sforzando until that stops, and it slows down systematically and then... it stops. He doesn't write a fermata over it. It's very much written out that “life stops”. So when you look at all of that, there's no question – it cannot be acceptance, it cannot be resignation, it is something that comes abruptly, much too soon, and is a protest, not acceptance.”

His recording project is with the Czech Philharmonic. In an age of internationalisation of orchestral sounds, what makes the Czechs special? “When it was suggested to me to record this Tchaikovsky cycle with them, I think it probably took me about five seconds before my instinct told me that it is exactly the place I would like to do it, because it is slavic, it is very close to the spirit of Russian music. For example, there is a tremendous affinity between Dvořák's and Tchaikovsky's music. At the same time, they do not have the sort of clichés that Russian musicians are born with. They also have a very unique, distinct woodwind sound, which is part of the legend of the orchestra from the old days of Talich, Ančerl, Kubelík. The string section is the jewel of the orchestra, for its warmth, its musicality. It's the kind of sound which hugs you.”

Semyon Bychkov © Chris Christodoulou
Semyon Bychkov
© Chris Christodoulou

Bychkov is no longer a music director or chief conductor of an orchestra or opera company, enjoying the freedom of guest conducting, without the day to day running of an institution. “It came six years ago when I left Cologne – which was a great marriage and lasted 13 years – but it was as warm when it ended as when it started. When I left, I suddenly wasn't responsible for an artistic institution – I'd never known that in my life so that was very new and as it went on it became evident that from that moment on, there was nothing between me and the music. That's the bottom line. It really is as simple as that.”

That means a lot of guest conducting and a lot of travel. When asked which is his favourite airport, Bychkov doesn’t hesitate. “Biarritz. When I arrive there, I am in our house on the Basque coast of France within fifteen minutes. However, my least favourite is also Biarritz because I have to go back to that bloody airport to go to the next job!”