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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Tchaikovsky Project - Volume 1
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 ‘Pathétique’ (1893) [44.36]
Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy overture after Shakespeare (1870, third version of 1880) [19.17]
Czech Philharmonic/Semyon Bychkov
rec. August & September 2015 Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic
DECCA 483 0656 [63.53]

I’ve loved Tchaikovsky’s music ever since I can remember. Like all first loves this one never died.” Semyon Bychkov (2016)

This spring at the Dresden Music Festival 2016 I was bowled over by the conducting of Semyon Bychkov in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, fantasy overture. Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg)-born Bychkov was conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Semperoper in a concert of rare distinction. With this new release, Bychkov commences Decca’s first complete cycle for almost forty years of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, plus the piano concertos and other orchestral works. Here, on volume one of The Tchaikovsky Project, Bychkov conducts Czech Philharmonic in Symphony No. 6 -Pathétique’ and Romeo and Juliet. Bychkov informs us that he was given a generous amount of rehearsal time to make this recording and the impeccable preparation shows in the orchestra’s beautiful and passionate playing. As part of Bychkov’s wider exploration, entitled ‘Beloved Friend: Tchaikovsky Project’, he will champion Tchaikovsky’s music over the next few years, with further Tchaikovsky residencies programmed in London, New York and Prague, In addition there are to be Tchaikovsky Project concerts in Vienna and Paris.

One of many works in the classical music repertoire based on William Shakespeare plays, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, originally composed in 1870, was not a success when it was first introduced. At Balakirev’s behest a second version was prepared and premièred in 1872. Balakirev persuaded Tchaikovsky that more improvement was necessary and a third revision was undertaken. Presented here is the third revised version from 1880, subtitled ‘Overture-Fantasia’. More of a symphonic poem than an overture, Romeo and Juliet was premièred in 1886 in Tbilisi by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov.

Bychkov gives a performance of Romeo and Juliet that generates an intense passion such as I could scarcely imagine being surpassed. The sense of mystery in the opening section is remarkable, yet Bychkov keeps the music flowing with assurance. After the first presentation of the love theme, I was struck by the stunning texture of the strings and the striking brass, which blaze so marvellously in tune. Following the final two renditions of the main melody, the combination of strings and brass could have been made in heaven. Under Bychkov’s accomplished baton it is hard to imagine this glorious music being played any better than here by the Czech Philharmonic.

Universally known as the ‘Pathétique,’ Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is his most deeply moving and profound score. It is regarded by Bychkov as “a musical biography of Tchaikovsky’s short life which lasted only fifty-three years.” Tchaikovsky wrote to his nephew Vladimir Davydov, describing the ‘Pathétique’ as “the best thing I have composed”. Once again, the struggle against fate is central to a work which was to be his last. The première took place in October 1893 in Saint Petersburg under Tchaikovsky’s own baton and just over a week later the composer was dead. Few musical farewells to the world have been more affecting.

This reading by Bychkov feels beautifully proportioned and reminds me greatly of the 2015 account from Manfred Honeck with Pittsburgh Symphony. In the opening movement, Allegro non troppo, I was quickly struck by the stylish and highly engaging playing. Adopting a restrained passion, Bychkov avoids any temptation to wallow and there is a gloriously temperamental power which erupts into action at point 9.20, with the sudden start of the development section. Strikingly, amid the heightened tension of the performance there is a distinct undertow of mystery. From start to finish the judiciously paced Allegro con grazia flows buoyantly with all the dreamlike elegance of a Viennese waltz. Under Bychkov the stunningly played Scherzo evokes a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ scene of nocturnal reverie with elves, fairies and spirits deep in the forest. The way Bychkov builds up the orchestral weight and volume is compelling and highly dramatic. Extraordinary is how Tchaikovsky closes the symphony with a slow movement marked Adagio lamentoso, a scheme that under the circumstances feels so apposite. The descending phrases create a deep melancholy together with a chorale of sorrow on the brass and winds as if mirroring the last vestiges of human spirit slowly fading away. This cry of anguish is probably unequalled in the history of music. Bychkov and his Czech Philharmonic players obtain an array of emotions that can leave the listener crushed.

My first choice recordings of the ‘Pathétique’ have been headed by the engagingly dramatic reading from Valery Gergiev and Vienna Philharmonic, recorded in 2004 at the Musikverein, Vienna on Philips. There is also the exciting and beautifully proportioned reading from Manfred Honeck with Pittsburgh Symphony, recorded in 2015 at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh on Reference Recordings. Of the mono recordings, I admire the compelling 1956 Konzerthaus Vienna account by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky on Deutsche Grammophon. This new release from the Czech Philharmonic under Bychkov is a stunning reading full of beauty and intense passion and can stand comfortably alongside the catalogue’s greatest.

Recorded at the Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, the sound team for Decca excel in providing good clarity with realistic presence and satisfying balance. The accompanying booklet contains concise and interesting essays by Warwick Thomson and Semyon Bychkov.

Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic are in breathtaking form and this first volume of The Tchaikovsky Project on Decca augurs remarkably well for its future releases.

Michael Cookson

 

 




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