The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under their Principal Conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov took up residence at Vienna's Musikverein, performing selections from their “Tchaikovsky Project”. Bychkov is the latest of musicians who take their Tchaikovsky really serious. Meticulously prepared and informed with archival research as well as passion, he invites us to listen with new ears. If you think you know your Tchaikovsky well, you may want to reconsider after hearing Bychkov and the Czechs.

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

There is often a lot of scepticism when familiar things are put into question. And what is more familiar in classical music than Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto? You may love it or hate it, but you are bound to know it. Nonetheless, it seems that what we have been hearing for more than a hundred years is not what the composer intended, but a posthumously edited version, most likely by Alexander Siloti, who also mangled the Second Piano Concerto. The version from 1879 that Tchaikovsky conducted until the year of his death was never heard again. Until recently.

The original text, rediscovered and published, has been championed by Kirill Gerstein and with good reason. Next to countless details, the main differences are the softer, arpeggiated chords in the famous opening theme, a restored cut that gives the third movement a rounder appearance, and a slightly slower tempo for the central Scherzo of the second movement. However, what silences all doubts and makes for such a different listening experience is the infinitely more subtle and imaginative approach by both soloist and conductor, stripping the concerto of its rhetoric, but not of its dramatic impact or romantic ardour. This was newly minted Tchaikovsky, more alive, elegant and convincing than ever. The warm and balanced sonority of the Czech Philharmonic fully matched Gerstein’s colourful pianism. Dialogues between piano and orchestral soloists, as in the graceful Andantino semplice, revealed exquisite detail. When on his own, Gerstein was no less masterly, nuanced in his phrasing and brilliant when required.

A thrilling discovery that hopefully will find a place next to the known version. Generously applauded, Gerstein returned with a sweet rendition of Rachmaninov’s Melodie.

The chemistry between the Czechs and their newly found “daddy”, as they dubbed maestro Bychkov, performed wonders in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. They played like devils for him, clearly relishing the music just as much as he does. Far from overlong or incoherent, this performance still burned with the enthusiasm of discovery and was gripping from start to end. The distinctive sound of the orchestra that seems to encapsulate centuries of Central-European tradition – glowing violins, characterful winds and some of the most pregnant brass you can hear – bloomed in the marvellous acoustics of the Musikverein.

Bychkov portrayed Byron's tormented, wandering hero with an operatic sweep. His well-judged tempi and keen dramatic pacing, his undeniable structural grip and complete understanding of Tchaikovsky’s instrumental colour coalesced into an epic struggle between darkness and light, doom and salvation. Pitch black bassoons and horns competed with harrowing lower strings, magical, muted violins appeared out of nowhere. Tutti in the outer movements knocked you out of your seat, but always developed naturally, never sounding forced. By contrast, the themes bounced with balletic grace between the desks in the Vivace con spirito. The transparency of the antiphonal strings was a thing of wonder, with orchestra leader Josef Špaček – a superb concert soloist himself – excelling in the final bars. The Andante con moto was a brief oasis of repose, before the orgiastic finale and the coda with organ ended the struggle in light.

Tchaikovsky can still surprise.

*****