Semyon Bychkov brings more to Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 in C major than most conductors. His mother, who was born in Leningrad, lived through the 900-day siege of the city by German troops vividly portrayed in the symphony. Bychkov shared some of her memories and other firsthand accounts in a brief film preceding the inaugural performance of the Czech Philharmonic’s new season, which set the emotional context for the music and the evening. “It’s such a shock to the system,” he said, “that after hearing a performance you will not be the same person.”

Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Petra Hajská

From the opening notes, Bychkov established a broad palette. After asserting in his opening remarks that the symphony encompasses “the whole gamut of human feelings and conditions” during wartime, he led with an exuberant, robust sound. Life in Leningrad seemed busy and vital. Even the famous “invasion march” (a description Shostakovich disavowed) introduced in the first movement started out chipper, not far removed in tone and tempo from its musical cousin, Ravel’s Bolero. Only gradually did it acquire deeper, darker tones and the ominous rumbling that finally burst into chaos – which was overwhelming, like doom descending in thunderous explosions and flashes of lightning.

This contrast anchored the entire performance. Long stretches of the symphony are quiet, with minimal accompaniment for solos and duets in the woodwinds. These Bychkov crafted with exquisite care, delineating lines so fine that they seemed to melt into other sections picking up the melody and then turning up the volume. At some points the shift in the music is abrupt, mirroring the terror of everyday life suddenly shattered by fearsome bombardment. But the thread in this performance was a steady sound that grew and receded organically, highlighting the contrasts and establishing a tension that kept listeners taut, even during calmer moments.

Extra Czech Philharmonic brass
© Petra Hajská

Throughout, precise control gave the music a knife edge. Strings slashed, percussion snapped and gentle interludes rose and sharpened into waves of fear and anxiety. One of the hallmarks of Bychkov’s tenure with the orchestra has been a brilliant clarity in the sound, but even by that standard this was a remarkable performance. There were so many musicians onstage that eight additional brass players had to sit up in the empora, yet the orchestra sounded as tight as a string quartet. Overall, there was a sense of being at the eye of the storm, focused and disciplined amid the whirling tumult.

For all that, Bychkov’s most striking accomplishment was an intangible – a sense of triumph. Undergirding the auditory assault, a spirit of resolve runs through the symphony, a determination in the face of unimaginable hardship to endure and survive. According to one of the stories Bychkov told, when the German soldiers heard a radio broadcast of the symphony, they knew they could never defeat such an iron-willed foe. Apocryphal or not, that feeling came through in the confident woodwinds, defiant horns and a towering, indomitable finale that swept away all discordant doubts.

The Czech Philharmonic in the Rudolfinum
© Petra Hajská

Did the performance change anyone’s life? It certainly changed Bychkov’s. When it concluded he had the orchestra stand for enthusiastic applause while he took a couple minutes to compose himself before turning to face the audience. When he did, he looked shell-shocked, like someone emerging from a terrible ordeal. “Deeply felt” doesn’t begin to describe his connection to this symphony, which was clearly a searing experience for him – as it was for the audience. This was not so much a concert as a journey, harrowing at times, thrilling at others, heartbreaking, inspirational – as Bychkov promised, the whole gamut. Eighty years after his mother huddled in a basement hiding from bombs, it has lost none of its power or impact.