Semyon Bychkov enjoys conducting music with a grand sense of scale, so it’s no surprise to see some big hitters in the new season of the Czech Philharmonic. He has been the orchestra’s Chief Conductor since 2018 and their partnership has been extremely impressive right from the start. Prior to Jiří Bělohlávek’s untimely death in 2017, Bychkov and the Czech Phil had already been working together on his “Tchaikovsky Project”, the Russian revelling in the slavic colours the orchestra still possesses, a rarity given the polished internationalisation of sound which has neutered many ensembles of their local colour in recent decades. 

Semyon Bychkov rehearsing at the Rudolfinum with the Czech Philharmonic
© Marco Borggreve

After the long Covid-enforced break, where only some concerts were attended by live audiences, the Rudolfinum will be reawakend to the public. The opening work of the season features a Russian work which holds tremendous personal meaning for Bychkov. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is subtitled the “Leningrad” and its composition was begun in the city when it was under German siege… a siege which Bychkov’s own mother lived through. Shostakovich served as a volunteer with the Leningrad Conservatory’s fire brigade – a photograph of him in uniform was printed in Soviet newspapers, leading to the famous Time magazine cover illustration of July 1942. Originally dedicated to Lenin, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony soon became a symbol of the city’s defiance against Hitler… although the composer suggested that it was a protest against all forms of tyranny, some of it closer to home. The triumphant C major ending still has a bitter ring. The Leningrad is a work that always makes a big impact on audiences – both due to its length, but also its decibels – so it is quite the season opening statement. 

Yuja Wang
© Julia Wesely

Bychkov’s next concert also features a single work – Gustav Mahler’s Ninth, his final completed symphony – followed by Mahler’s Fifth in December in a concert that also features Bertrand Chamayou playing Richard Strauss’ youthful Burleske. Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, his last major orchestral work, is another Bychkov favourite, as is Brahms’ First Symphony, both works he recorded to great acclaim when chief conductor of the WDR Sinfonie-Orchester Köln. is preceded by two 20th-century rarities: Miloslav Kabeláč’s The Mystery of Time and Viktor Ullmann’s melodrama The Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke, based on a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke which recounts a soldier’s adventures. Ullmann completed his work shortly before being taken to Auschwitz. 

Stravinsky may not seem like natural Bychkov territory, so The Rite of Spring next April will be fascinating, a concert that includes Icelandic star pianist Víkingur Ólafsson playing Mozart, plus the world premiere of a new symphony “Prague Panoramas” by Julian Anderson. 

But the key works for Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic next season are Smetana’s epic cycle of symphonic poems Má vlast (very much the orchestra’s calling card), Dvořák’s cheerful Eighth Symphony and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. All three works feature in a European tour that takes in Vienna’s Musikverein, Berlin’s Philharmonie, Hamburg’s architecturally splendid Elbphilharmonie and London’s Barbican. Joining the tour bus is pianist Yuja Wang for Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, a work full of neoclassical clarity and leanness. 

There are other familiar faces on the Rudolfinum podium this season. Jakub Hrůša is one of the finest young conductors around – as audiences in Bamberg and London know well – and heads three programmes, each including lesser-known Czech repertoire such as Janáček early Suite for Orchestra, Josef Suk’s Epilogue and Josef Bohuslav Foerster’s Fifth Symphony. Hrůša is also joined by Yuja Wang (Rachmaninov), Josef Špaček Jr (Martinů) and Sheku Kanneh-Mason (Elgar) in concerto repertoire. Fellow Czech Tomáš Netopil also conducts three programmes, including a rare chance to hear music by Zdeněk Fibich (much underrated) and Georg Benda’s melodrama Medea, considered one of the 18th-century Bohemian composer’s best operatic works. 

The Czech Philharmonic also invites other guest conductors, many of whom also appear in the guise of composer/arranger. Highlights should include Alain Altinoglu whose programme includes Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony and his own suite drawn from Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Manfred Honeck performs a traditional Viennese New Year’s Day concert, and later in the season conducts his own “symphonic rhapsody” on Richard Strauss’ opera Elektra. Michael Tilson Thomas’ precedes Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony with his own arrangement of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. There’s no tinkering from Franz Welser-Möst though, who pairs a Mozart concerto with a Bruckner symphony, the Ninth, a masterpiece dedicated “to beloved God”. 

So there’s plenty to entice you to Prague next season… or perhaps catch the orchestra on tour if you can’t make it to the Rudolfinum. 

You can see details of upcoming Czech Philharmonic concerts here.

This preview was sponsored by the Czech Philharmonic.