A survey of the great conductor's career and some thoughts on his future UK appearances.

© Gavin Dixon 2008

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BychkovConductors usually gain international reputations through the passion and energy of their performances; attention to detail and meticulous planning are traditionally considered lesser virtues, the worthy aspirations of those untouched by interpretive genius. But Semyon Bychov is an exception, a conductor who can inspire electrifying performances, but also a perfectionist, who demands sustained commitment from his performers and rigorous rehearsal for every project. His visits to the UK in recent years have been frustratingly few, but his recent tour with the National Youth Orchestra was a triumph, even by their high standards, and engagements with Royal Opera and the BBC Symphony Orchestra are set to follow later in the year.

Although a resident of Paris, Bychkov’s artistic home since 1997 has been Cologne, where his directorship of the WDR Sinfonieorchester has become one of the great artistic partnerships of recent times. The orchestra’s stable finances and generous rehearsal allocation have provided the ideal artistic environment for the conductor, allowing him to refine, almost to the point of obsession, his interpretations of works by the handful of composers that constitute his core repertoire.

First and foremost among these is Shostakovich. Like Rudolph Barshai before him, Bychkov has produced a series of distinctive and accomplished Shostakovich symphony recordings with the WDR forces. Clear, open textures and intelligently proportioned structures are his hallmarks. Bychkov resists the programmatic tendencies that have led many conductors emphasise the dark irony of many passages at the expense of the overall symphonic argument. Brisker tempi are one result, and the Bychkov/WDR recording of the 11th Symphony comes in around thirteen minutes shorter than the roughly contemporary Rostropovich/LSO release. Some have complained that the results are less idiomatic and that they hark back to more innocent times - unflattering comparisons with Previn’s 1970s recordings underline the point. But for all his personal empathy with the composer, Bychkov insists on taking the scores at face value and communicating, precisely yet passionately, exactly what he finds.

And the empathy is strong. Bychkov himself was born in Stalin’s Leningrad in 1952. His musical talents were spotted early on and initially fostered by the Soviet education system. His teacher, Ilya Mushin, was the defining influence of his early years, and, like Temirkanov and Gergev, Bychkov is often described approvingly as a prime example of a Mushin pupil. Victory in the 1973 Rachmaninov conducting competition carried as its prize an engagement to conduct the Leningrad Philharmonic. But when this was cancelled at short notice by the KGB, who had become suspicious of Bychkov’s free thinking ways, he made the decision to leave Russia for the West. It was a difficult choice, by all accounts, and he still carries a resentment for the political system that forced him to choose between his homeland and the pursuit of his art. In later years, when the rest of his family had also emigrated (including his younger brother, the conductor Yakov Kreuzberg), his father remained, unable to secure the necessary permission to rejoin the family.

All the more remarkable then that Bychov resists the temptation to politicise Shostakovich’s music. His interpretations instead communicate the deep humanity and multifaceted emotions of the music, qualities informed but not defined by political repression. In conversation, Bychkov resists talk of politics, not out of sensitivity so much as disinterest, he defines himself through his music, and his music is not subservient to any agenda.

Bychkov first came to international attention in the 1980s as a visiting conductor with the top orchestras of Europe. America had been his initial base on leaving Russia, and his first musical directorships had been with the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan. But Europe offered more prestigious opportunities, and his ability to stand in at short notice for indisposed regulars led to appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw. His impact on European audiences was sensational, and for a few years he was touted as one of the most promising names of his generation. The reputation was sealed by Herbert von Karajan, who proposed Bychkov as his successor in Berlin. The appointment never materialised, but the endorsement carried weight, and the offer of another senior position was almost inevitable.

In the event, Bychkov accepted the position of musical director of the Orchestre de Paris. The move puzzled many, not least because the more prestigious (and better paying) Cleveland Orchestra had expressed an interest in his services, but also because he seemed to have no natural affinity with French music. Bychkov himself explained the move as an effort to broaden his musical horizons, but his relationship with, and later marriage to, the French pianist Marielle Labèque (one half of the Labèque sisters piano duo) may go some way to explain the curious career choice. But the honeymoon period with the English-language press came to an abrupt halt with the Paris appointment; critics responded to early performances with muted indifference and later lost interest altogether. Bychkov himself remained upbeat. He relished the greater artistic freedom offered by the French orchestra, and his recent signing to Phillips led to a series of French repertoire recordings - Berlioz, Bizet, Poulenc, even Dutilleux – that remain in the company’s catalogue.

Despite the underwhelming response from the press, Bychkov continued to lead the Paris orchestra for nine years. The retreat from the world’s attentions, while not a conscious choice, suited him well. His industrious approach and focussed commitment to individual projects sits uneasily with the jet setting lifestyle of the celebrity conductor. Indeed, Bychkov’s concentrated approach to preparation and rehearsal has strained a number of professional relationships. The details of his interpretations are usually decided in advance of rehearsal, and his expectations of performers are specific and unwavering. Orchestras benefit from this approach, especially as Bychkov is in the habit of committing himself to long term appointments, but tensions can result with soloists and singers, who have tighter schedules and are used to greater artistic liberty. But respect for Bychkov’s professionalism and musicianship is the common factor in his many artistic collaborations. ‘Sincere’ is a word used by many critics and performers. His exemplary baton technique, clear and precise but without pedantry, is the most obvious indicator of his artistic focus: collaborative music making based on close and immediate communication.

Bychkov’s return to international attention came in 1997, when, standing down from the Orchestra de Paris, he took up appointments in Cologne and Dresden. The new focus on German repertoire clearly worked to the conductor’s advantage. In Dresden, Bychkov became musical director of the Semperoper, an appointment justified by a string of earlier Strauss performances, works which are now routinely associated with his name. Most of Strauss’ operas had been premiered in Dresden, and the house takes pride in its continuous tradition of Strauss interpretation. When Bychkov conducted a new production of Der Rosenkavalier in 2000, it was from the orchestral parts that had been used at the work’s premiere in 1911.

Precision and clarity pay dividends with Strauss’ intricate rococo textures. Critics have also drawn attention to the lightness that Bychkov brings to the scores, an especially valuable asset in Salome and Elektra. But, for all his planning and intellectual control, emotion and expression are his guiding principles. Strauss has become Bychkov’s signature repertoire on his visits to the great opera houses of Europe, the Vienna Staatsoper, La Scala, and concert performances with his Cologne orchestra have so far yielded two critically acclaimed recordings, of Elektra and Daphne, both released in 2005. He has also proved a powerful advocate for Strauss’ orchestral music, taking on a handful of large-scale works – notably the Alpinesinfonie and Ein Heldenleben – and performing each dozens of times in order to refine and perfect his interpretation. Strauss’ programmatic tendencies continue to cause controversy, but Bychkov makes a convincing case for these works to be taken seriously, his symphonic approach to form emphasising the music’s inner logic without recourse to programmes or narratives.

British audiences can expect similar qualities from Bychkov’s Wagner when he brings Lohengrin to Covent Garden in April followed by Tannhaüser in 2010. His Wagner performances to date have been relatively few, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre during his Dresden tenure and more recently Tristan and Isolde in Vienna, Paris and Japan. But operatic sensibilities honed in Strauss have much to offer Wagner, especially with a company at the top of its game. Of the mature operas, Lohengrin has perhaps the greatest need of a firm controlling hand, co-ordinating ensemble set-pieces and teasing out hidden strands of orchestral polyphony. But Bychkov’s primary qualification for Wagner is his symphonic approach to staged opera. A feeling for dramatic immediacy and a knack for pacing large-scale structures, musical instincts that have been developed through decades of Shostakovich and Strauss interpretation, and which could now combine to make him one of the great Wagnerians of his age.

© Gavin Dixon 2008