One of the most performed, recorded, and studied classical composers in the world, does Tchaikovsky need another festival?
Semyon Bychkov, the internationally celebrated Russian-American conductor who presides over Beloved Friend—Tchaikovsky and His World: A Philharmonic Festival, January 24–February 11, answers those questions with the New York Philharmonic. And who better than the orchestra that, since 1876, has given the American premieres of several of Tchaikovsky’s works and, in 1891, performed with the composer himself on the podium at the opening of Carnegie Hall? Among all the composers whose music the Philharmonic has performed, Tchaikovsky ranks third, just behind Beethoven and Wagner.
The idea of this Tchaikovsky festival originated a few years ago in conversation between Bychkov and the Philharmonic. Immersing himself in the composer’s world, the 64-year-old conductor has developed an international, multi-season project that is spanning continents, including a series with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (presented at the Barbican in October 2016); residencies around the world, including in Vienna and Paris; and a recording of Tchaikovsky’s complete symphonies and piano concertos with the Czech Philharmonic (released on Decca Classics).
Bychkov has never been far away from Tchaikovsky. As a child in a musical family, the conductor grew up surrounded by the composer’s music, a soundtrack of Russian life played on radio, television, and elsewhere. For his first 22 years, he resided in St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad), the city where Tchaikovsky spent his youth, became a composer, saw the premieres of his great ballets and operas at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, conducted his last symphony, and died in 1893 under mysterious circumstances at the age of 53 after a brief and agonizing illness.
Beloved Friend borrows its name from the way the composer and his adoring patron, Nadezhda von Meck, addressed each other. Bychkov says that he has loved Tchaikovsky’s music for as long as he can remember, and adds that it became for him, as for many others, a “beloved friend” throughout his life.
Bychkov was fortunate to experience Tchaikovsky’s masterpieces in iconic interpretations by the famous Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky, witnessing that conductor’s constant search for deeper meaning and unity of performance. And Bychkov studied Tchaikovsky’s scores at the Leningrad Conservatory, where he received a very important lesson in Ilya Musin’s conducting class: “Music must speak. It must tell the story.”
“Tchaikovsky’s music tells a story which is as relevant now as ever,” said Bychkov in a phone conversation from London. “All great art is about the human condition. Today, we dress differently, but internally, emotionally, people have not changed. That is why Tchaikovsky’s music has such an impact on us. It is very personal.”
The conductor’s immersion in everything Tchaikovsky, including through reading numerous letters and memoirs, provided an important channel to
unsounded depths in the music. “Tchaikovsky the man and his music are inseparable,” he explains. “Apparently, he was a kind, modest, unpretentious man, very nice to others, joyful—he loved life and was adored by everyone—but he also was a tortured soul, full of anxiety, and prone to dark moods. He put all this in his scores.”
Bychkov continues: “He was very detailed, like Mahler, putting indications of tempi, dynamics, accents, remarks everywhere. His music is more complex than it seems to be, like Mozart’s. The first thing people notice about Tchaikovsky is his great melodies, but they are not just melodies supported by the rest of the score. There are layers and layers of other voices beneath; there are intricate lines and rich harmonies. We just have to pay attention.”
By “paying attention” Bychkov made some discoveries, which undoubtedly will challenge our perception of some well-known scores, such as the Pathétique: its conclusion appears in a new light. The conductor does not see it as resignation, which many have felt it represents; rather, it’s a protest against death, which comes much too soon. His take was noted in the review of the London performances, with The Sunday Times observing that the finale was “bold, clear, not at all ‘neurotic,’ and even not unhopeful.” In his review of the CD, which appeared in a variety of international publications, Norman Lebrecht acclaimed the conductor’s “balanced austerity reminiscent of Mravinsky, a survivalist determination that is driven at just the right pace to sustain dramatic coherence.”
Bychkov now brings his point of view to an orchestra that has a rich history with this music. “The New York Philharmonic plays Tchaikovsky so often and so well,” he says. “They can perform most of this programming without any rehearsal. But we do not want just another performance. I know that these musicians are ready to dig into Tchaikovsky’s music with me, to get fired up and inspired by it anew, and their vast experience will only be helpful.”
He would love to perform all of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and concertos with the Philharmonic, but choices had to be made. He selected the Fifth and the Sixth Symphonies because, he explains, “they are the pinnacle of his work,” and the Manfred Symphony because it is great but underrated. Manfred joins Francesca da Rimini in the festival in representing Tchaikovsky’s programmatic music, an important field at the time and a prime way in which Tchaikovsky interpreted literary sources.
Bychkov explains that the First Piano Concerto, with Kirill Gerstein as soloist, is being presented in its original version, which has not been heard in New York since the composer himself conducted it in 1891. It is much more lyrical than the widely known posthumous redaction, and Gerstein is an expert, as he has performed and recorded it recently. The Second Piano Concerto has a special connection with the New York Philharmonic, which gave its World Premiere in 1881. Its music is rich and imaginative, and Yefim Bronfman’s tremendous pianism, lush sound, and roots in the Russian piano tradition are ideal for this demanding score.
Bychkov observes that his interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s scores have changed over the years, since his opera-conducting debut leading Eugene Onegin at the Leningrad Conservatory. “It has changed because I have changed,” he says. “My perception of Tchaikovsky is informed by the life I have lived and by all the other music that I have performed. But I never tire of Tchaikovsky.”
Maya Pritsker is a New York–based journalist and music critic.