Written by: Colin Anderson
Semyon Bychkov brings his Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra to London for a concert on 1 December to include Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. “My mother is a survivor of the siege, and Shostakovich is one of those composers who makes you see life.”
While I wait for Semyon Bychkov, the Cologne hotel plays familiar music down the phone. “If they said it was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons it would make people aware. It’s really bad in the plane; we are made to listen. Someone has decided that it’s any music at any time: not a good idea.” We agree that listening to music should be special rather than indiscriminate. Bychkov is conductor of the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra; their current tour includes London on 1 December, Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.
Semyon Bychkov was born in Leningrad in 1952. “My mother is a survivor of the siege, and Shostakovich is one of those composers who makes you see life. A lot of his music I would call street music, but he also addresses the human condition in all its manifestations. Programmatic music became discredited, composers viewed with suspicion for putting images into sounds and not writing abstract, absolute music. Shostakovich’s genius is couching programmes in the strict form of a symphony. With the first movement march he knew he would be accused of writing a second Boléro; this was the theme of German invasion even though he said he composed the work before the war started. Everything depicted in it has never ended: despair and hostility.”
Rather different is the concert’s other music, Max Bruch’s evergreen Violin Concerto No.1. “I’m told it’s the most popular piece of classical music in the UK. I am amused by this because it is a phenomenal masterpiece and not just a collection of pretty melodies; it is full of interesting polyphonic details, the structure is inevitable, and a wonderful story is told.” Sayaka Shoji, the soloist, is an “extraordinary young lady from Japan. She’s 21 and when I first heard her I was touched by her personality: shy, thoughtful, modest and wanting to understand the meaning behind every note. This kind of devotion is exactly the opposite of a career driven by superficiality. She has a rich soul and lives for music. It’s important that she is supported in a friendly environment away from the spotlight.”
That environment is Cologne where the Radio Orchestra is thriving under Semyon Bychkov, as several Avie CDs prove, including an impressive Leningrad Symphony (AV 0020). In Shostakovich or in Mahler and Richard Strauss, clarity seems Bychkov’s watchword. “Musicians try to share what is behind the notes. You have to have conviction, and that is based on long reflection, a clear idea of what the piece represents.” Bychkov has just issued Brahms’s symphonies (AV 0051); do the many existing recordings cast shadows? “We all walk in the footsteps of our predecessors. Composers have to go forward; so too interpreters. But to be different for the sake of it doesn’t pay; it’s superficial and not original. The reason for performing music is because one loves it; there’s an inner need.”
Bychkov’s forthcoming Cologne recordings include Strauss’s Elektra and Daphne (the latter with Renée Fleming) for Decca and more Shostakovich symphonies (6, 10 & 11) for Avie. Bychkov enjoys generous preparation time in Cologne. “It’s amazing to do what you want and create conditions which respond to your artistic needs. Daphne we have already performed; we had two weeks’ rehearsal for two performances! And we have more concerts before we record; there are twelve days of sessions. Every recording we have made is a similar process.”
Bychkov sees this tour as a chance “to share what we love with a different public; the orchestra is competitive and proud, and they would love people to know that they are good. This music is ingrained in their consciousness.”