When Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto received its world premiere in Vienna in 1881 the critic Eduard Hanslick compared it to “music that stinks to the ear”. Well, we've moved on since; Hanslick became an amusing footnote, the concerto is still played worldwide. On the second day of their Viennese stint Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic were joined by French violinist Renaud Capuçon. For good contrast, the Violin Concerto was paired with one of Tchaikovsky’s most dramatic works, his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathétique”.

Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic at the Musikverein
© Dieter Nagl

Strongly focused, Capuçon’s rendition of the concerto was stately and elegant, based on the purest of tones and the smoothest of lines. Temperamentally, though, this was a cool and unsmiling account with very little variation. Capuçon seemed locked in his own world. The compromise was a reading of often admirable beauty, but one without a beating heart. We were gazing at a cold marble rather than a warmly coloured fresco. There were moments to savour, especially in the tender dialogues with the orchestral soloists in the Canzonetta, yet overall this performance failed to break the ice. Not that the audience seemed to mind, though, and Capuçon encored with a disarmingly lovable performance of Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits.

Things really took off after the break, and how! This was definitely one of the most convincing Pathétiques I have heard. Dark, at times terrifyingly so, and eventually totally devastating. Bychkov and his Czech forces took no prisoners in their all-consuming journey. Conducting from memory, Bychkov was in complete control throughout and the orchestra followed him blindly. Nothing seemed superfluous, there wasn’t a second of weakness, every bar made logical sense in the overall structure. The balance and sound were absolutely astonishing. Whether in the softest passages or pushed to the brink, the flexibility of the Czech Philharmonic seemed boundless.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic at the Musikverein
© Dieter Nagl

The development of the first movement culminated in a ferocious shriek of pain. The frantically fiddling divided violins spread over the width of the stage of the Musikverein created a wall of sound, while the double basses at the back centre pierced through it to tremendous effect. Prominent timpani accompanied the hair-raising trombones downwards into the abyss. The return of the main theme brought a bittersweet moment, although the final bars left a sting of irreparable loss.

The second movement waltzed on the most gorgeous cellos, a doom-laden dance that reminisced about a lost elegance. Bychkov was generous with dramatic rubatos and accentuated the descending phrase in the middle section. The theme ricocheted between the desks in an all out Scherzo. Pacing and dynamics were superb and with a ritardando before the final outburst Bychkov created a thrilling sense of release.

The Viennese audience demonstrated their musical knowledge by refraining to applaud after the third movement, yet Bychkov took his time before plunging into the final movement. The Adagio lamentoso dashed a last of shimmer of hope with extremely powerful outbursts of anger. Lower strings, winds and horns must have been veiled in black, violins sounded icy cold. The coda was taken at a faster tempo than usual with an abrupt ending. Total knockout.

A tremendous performance, not just because of the vision behind it, but Bychkov gets his orchestra exactly where he wants to. As the previous night he graciously gave all credit to his musicians. He made them stand up to receive the ovation while he remained with his back to the audience, before finally taking a bow himself. Not surprisingly he looked totally exhausted after such complete investment. Surely, it can’t be good for the heart, but what fabulous music-making this is!