first met Semyon
Bychkov in the 1980s in Toronto when I interviewed him for a CJRT-FM broadcast. He had recently taken over the Buffalo
Philharmonic and made a huge impression with a deeply moving
performance of the Shostakovich Fifth. I found him to be an articulate and
inspiring young conductor. He seemed to have all the answers yet his confidence
was neither threatening nor arrogant. There was an underlying sincerity that
endeared him to other musicians.
After a few seasons in
Buffalo he went on to become music director of the Orchestre de Paris and then to one of the best radio orchestras in Germany, the WDR Symphony in
Cologne, where he remains. In Cologne he is doing fine work, much of it
documented on CDs and DVDs. We have many of the Shostakovich symphonies, lots
of Richard Strauss, all the Brahms symphonies, several operas including
Strauss’ Daphne with Renée Fleming, and now this excellent Rachmaninov
Bychkov speaks such flawless
English that we sometimes forget that he was born in St. Petersburg and
received all his basic musical training in the Soviet Union. Russian music is in his blood and he has become a master interpreter of its greatest
I must confess that I came
late to the Rachmaninov Second Symphony. Perhaps I was not ready for the piece.
I strongly believe that there are some pieces you cannot appreciate when you
are young either because you are not mature enough or because you have not
learned enough about music or about life. In the case of the Rachmaninov
Symphony No. 2 I think it was a case of not having suffered enough and not
having enough to look back on with regret and sadness at turns not taken or
opportunities lost, and friends and family who have died. It is the shock of
realizing we may be – indeed we will be
– next or close to it. Death has finally become part of our destiny.
Melancholy, death and nostalgia are very much a part of the Rachmaninov E minor
Symphony. One can enjoy it on the level of the big, fat romantic tunes but
getting inside the piece is something else. But what a wonderful realization
that is too! After half a century studying music to make another profound
discovery is so energizing! When this piece finally got to me I was moved to go
back and study the score and listen to all the available recordings. My love
for the piece only grew stronger.
Bychkov recorded the
Rachmaninov 2nd symphony for the first time with
the Orchestre de Paris in the 1990s but his latest version is much better. He
never loses sight of the long line but takes time to allow those brooding dark
corners to make their full effect. Rachmaninov is very sparing with his major
climaxes – there is only one in each of the first, third and last
movements – and Bychkov makes sure they achieve their full effect. Those
of us nurtured on Bruckner and Mahler often
expect more and bigger in the last movement, but this is Rachmaninov;
in his view the ultimate grandeur and power in this life is illusory and
fleeting, and so it is in this great symphony.
This is a wonderful
performance created, no doubt, from many lonely hours of study on his part and
then many more hours of rehearsal with his orchestra. The result is a
performance that has mastered every detail and which is pulsing with life in every
bar. Bychkov is the kind of conductor who does not appear to be doing much in
performance – he never cues individual instruments – but it is
obvious he has meticulously seen to every aspect of the performance. The
orchestra plays magnificently.
conducting style is idiosyncratic. He often sways from side to side; one
wonders if it makes the players dizzy. He also has a beat with no sharp edges,
more like a choral conductor rather than a symphony conductor. I am not sure it
would be effective in contemporary music but perhaps he changes his technique
There are complete
performances of all three Rachmaninov works in this set, played by the
orchestra in its own hall in Cologne, but without an audience and the musicians
are in street clothes. In addition, the set includes a long and unusual
documentary based on what appear to be dress rehearsals for these same
The music is interrupted
from time to time by either 1) interviews with Bychkov in which he talks about
Rachmaninov and his evolution as a composer, 2) interviews with musicians who
talk about how they feel about playing in this orchestra, 3) archival film
clips mostly from life in Russia in Rachmaninov’s early years, and 4) shots of
ice melting or chess pieces being moved on a board. A superficial first
impression is that this is all a mishmash and the work of a director who tried
to do too many things at once, but if one is prepared to give the director the
benefit of the doubt there are rewards.
Bychkov appears to be
speaking extemporaneously but shows a detailed knowledge of Rachmaninov’s life
and states of mind, and how they informed the music he wrote. The younger
players talk of their worries about fitting in and the older ones about
retirement. Against this information as we watch them play Rachmaninov they
have become more human and Rachmaninov’s own life-journey and their awareness
of it in the music they are playing draws us into the performance and what
music means to those who make it and those who listen to it. The melting ice
and the chess pieces are something else. The director lost me there, but no
matter; I enjoyed the juxtaposition of all the other elements well enough.
The Bells is a choral work in four movements based on a poem by Edgar Alan Poe. The poetry is not especially
profound in its celebration of various sorts of bells, but Rachmaninov clearly
responded to the dark side - bells signaling disasters and death. He
avoids burdening us with endless bell sounds in the orchestra but creates a
compelling texture nonetheless. The performance is as fine as any I have heard.
Finally, we come to
Rachmaninov’s last work, the Symphonic Dances. Stylistically, not much has
changed since the Second Symphony written twenty-two years earlier but one
could say the same about Richard Strauss.
No matter. The dances are hauntingly beautiful and Bychkov and his orchestra
play them superbly.
The audio quality throughout
the set is first-rate with a vast dynamic range and lovely textures. The video
direction is very good while sometimes showing us musicians who are either
playing secondary parts or nothing at all. Some might find this a weakness but
it didn’t bother me at all. As we sit in an audience at a concert we often look
at players not at the centre of things and that too is part of the experience.