In praise of Semyon Bychkov

When Semyon Bychkov raises his baton at the start of his Tchaikovsky series at London’s Barbican next week [Oct 19], the hall will be packed, as will New York’s Lincoln Center when he repeats the programme there in January. He’s one of the few conductors able to fill large auditoria through their own charisma, yet to most people he’s an enigma: no personality cult has ever surrounded this great Russian bear.

This may be partly because he prefers to talk about music rather than himself, but it’s also thanks to the fact that his career has followed an unconventional path. Born in Leningrad in 1952, and a youthful volleyball star, he studied piano and conducting at the conservatory where music was pursued with a do-or-die intensity unimaginable to students in the West. Bychkov recalls climbing over the concert-hall roof to hear the visiting Berlin Philharmonic, and long nocturnal discussions about the transition from page to stage of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. That, incidentally, was the first opera he conducted, and his 1993 recording of it still has benchmark status today.

Unable to conceal his contempt for Soviet officialdom, and increasingly penalised as a Jewish dissident, he applied to emigrate in 1974, at a time when the Soviet Union was temporarily relaxing emigration rules for Jews in exchange for technology from the West. He now jokes that he was traded for a computer. But the KGB ensured that the process was both sadistic and expensive, leaving him and his wife with nothing when the plane dumped them in Vienna.

He recalls with bemused gratitude the way the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – ‘if only such an agency existed in the Middle East today’ – provided them with money to rent a room and eat. He also recalls the bitter moment when he found himself outside Vienna’s opera house where a new production of Lohengrin was being advertised, with tickets way beyond what he could afford. It’s one of his life’s triumphant symmetries that, thirty years later to the day, he himself conducted that opera there.

HIAS shepherded them on, first to Rome, and finally to New York, where they got a passport stamp saying ‘Refugee Conditional Entrance’, and where, he says, ‘it was like being born a second time’. He gave private lessons in piano and solfege to make ends meet, cut his teeth as conductor of the Mannes College orchestra, and moved on to run the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan, followed by the Buffalo Philharmonic, building such a reputation that Philips signed him for a ten-year contract. This began with his conducting the Berlin Philharmonic – with Herbert von Karajan’s enthusiastic blessing – in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

He then moved to Europe, taking top conducting jobs in Paris, Dresden, and Cologne. Praised for the beauty and integrity of his interpretations, he’s now a globe-trotting guest conductor free of administrative responsibilities (his pianist wife Marielle Labèque is often the soloist). He is widely tipped as successor-in-waiting to Sir Antonio Pappano as music director of London’s Royal Opera House, where he is currently conducting Cosi fan tutte; Bychkov’s simile for conducting – building a house to an architect’s plans – reflects his finely calibrated approach to Mozart’s score.

Bychkov’s Tchaikovsky project – whose title, Beloved Friend, refers to the way the composer and his patron Nadezhda von Meck addressed each other – reflects his lifelong devotion to this composer’s music. ‘Tchaikovsky knew how to twist the knife in the hearts of the audience – that’s one of the miracles of his music,’ he said recently. The chosen orchestra for his new recordings of Tchaikovsky is the Czech Philharmonic, which for him combines a Western mind-set with a Slavic soul. In his concert series he’s including music by Sergei Rachmaninov, whose music Tchaikovsky admired, and also music by Tchaikovsky’s favourite composition pupil, Sergei Taneyev, but at the project’s core are Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos and his Manfred and Pathétique symphonies.

In the perennial debate as to what the latter work ‘means’ – if music can ever ‘mean’ anything beyond itself – Bychkov takes up the cudgels against those who say it means a meek acceptance of death by a man about to commit suicide. For a start, he says, the composer was only 53, relatively young and in his successful prime. Then Bychkov produces a facsimile of Tchaikovsky’s annotated score, and, jabbing excitedly with his forefinger at the composer’s stress-markings, shows how physically tortured the finale is; the simulated expiring heartbeats at the close suggest, he says, not acceptance, but a furious protest against the idea of extinction.

This article appeared in the Economist on October 8

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