Barbican Hall: Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic – Dvořák & Janáček

Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88
Glagolitic Mass

Evelina Dobračeva (soprano), Lucie Hislcherová (mezzo-soprano), Aleš Briscein (tenor) &Boris Prýgl (bass)

Daniela Valtová Kosinov­á (organ) 

CBSO Chorus
Czech Philharmonic
Semyon Bychkov


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 16 March, 2022
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Two years ago, a concert given by the Czech Philharmonic and their music director Semyon Bychkov would have been a very hot ticket, something you could take for granted with one of the world’s great orchestras and conductors. Yet Covid caution still thrives in London, and the Barbican was probably just more than half full for an exceptional concert. The USSR-born Bychkov made a brief speech about the Ukraine crisis, and then he and around ninety of the country’s near neighbours launched into the Ukrainian national anthem in about as highly charged an acclamation of place and what Germans call Heimat as I’ve heard, especially poignant since the Czechs themselves know about Russian invasion.

The sense of belonging and identity seeped through every note of the works that followed. Some people get terribly exercised by nationalism, not least in the liberal, privileged arts. Here the former dirty word spoke out with a natural pride, and the Czech Philharmonic – the players of which, to judge from the list of names, are mostly Czech – revealed an innate appreciation of how local style and accent is a way into the universal. This concert went a long way to redeem faith in humanity.

The Dvořák and Janáček works both thrive on that fathomless yearning sound of warmth, rawness and depth, and the Czech Philharmonic’s many miracles of expressiveness and effortless ensemble played a long game with musical susceptibilities. This wasn’t so much conducted as suggested by Bychkov, with a calibre of rapport that was a pleasure both to observe and hear. Even at the slightly measured tempos Bychkov favoured in Dvořák’s Symphony No.8, and very much to the advantage of texture and clarity, the music’s irrepressible good nature shone through, especially in the delayed expectations of the Adagio with its ravishing flute solos, while resistance to the Scherzo’s waltz and the trumpet fanfares of the Finale was futile.

If the Dvořák was pure joy, Bychkov then plugged into the life-affirming Slavic rawness of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass in a performance that completely honoured the level of inspiration that seized the 72-year-old composer when he fell in love with Kamila Stösslova, a married woman half his age. He imagined the Mass as taking place in a cathedral formed from the trees of a forest, in which he and Kamila would be married. Hence the urgency, the moments of intense contemplation, and the ear-blasting outbursts of pantheistic jubilation. When you think of the opera-house stagings of the Bach Passions or the Verdi and Britten Requiem settings, it’s a wonder that someone hasn’t got their hands on this overtly theatrical piece of liturgy. 

Evelina Dobračeva and Aleš Briscein were totally immersed in the music’s idiom, with Briscein ringing out magnificently in his Gloria and Credo entries, and there was similar visceral directness from the CBSO Chorus. And somehow the organist Daniela Valtová Kosinov­á managed to transcend the limitations of the electronic organ and its synthetic sound to give a blazing account of the solos. 

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