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“The Tchaikovsky Project”
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: CD 1: Symphony n° 1 in G minor, opus 13 “Winter Daydreams” – Symphony n° 2 in C minor, opus 17 “Little Russian” [1]; CD 2: Symphony n° 3 in D major, opus 29 “Polish” [2] – Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare, TH 42, CW 39 [6]; CD 3: Symphony n° 4 in F minor, opus 36 [3] – Francesca da Rimini, opus 32 [3]; CD 4: Manfred Symphony, opus 58 [4]; CD 5: Symphony n° 5 in E minor, opus 64 [5] – Serenade for Strings in C major, opus 48 [4]; CD 6: Symphony n° 6 in B minor, opus 74 “Pathétique” [6] – Piano Concerto n° 1 in B-Flat minor, opus 23 (1879 version)* [7]; CD 7: Piano Concerto n° 2 in G major, opus 44 (original version)*^ [8] – Piano Concerto n° 3 in E-Flat major, opus 75* [8]

Czech Philharmonic, Kirill Gerstein* (piano), Václav Petr^ (cello), Semyon Bychkov (conductor)
Recording: Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic (August 17-19 [6] and September 24-26, 2015 [6], July 12-14, 2016 [2], April 24-28, 2017 [4], June 7-9, 2017 [7], June 12-14, 2017 [9], December 11-14, 2017 [5], March 5-8, 2018 [3], February 13-15 [8] and February 20-22, 2019 [8], March 4-8, 2019 [1] – 496’44
7 CD set Decca # 483 4942 – Book in English, French and German

Semyon Bychkov has been living and breathing Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky for four years, but that admiration has been felt long before this ambitious venture. M. Bychkov is quoted, “I can even call him [Tchaikovsky] my first love – and like so many first loves, my passion has never died”. With an unerring obsession also comes his own managerial approach: permitting input from all 124 members. Historically speaking, “The Tchaikovsky Project” is Decca’s first Tchaikovsky cycle to be released in nearly 40 years.

Semyon Bychkov’s initial relationship with the Czech Philharmonic came unexpectedly back in 2013 when a last-minute conductor was urgently needed…enter Bychkov. The connection with then Music Director, Jirí Belohlávek, was instantaneous. However, such camaraderie was short lived when Belohlávek tragically passed away in 2017. Luckily, the ensemble’s continuity was already intact and “The Tchaikovsky Project” was in full swing.

Since the ever-popular Tchaikovsky has been captured over the years, it begs the question: “why another recording?” The answer is: “innate connection.” So we return again to M. Bychkov for a moment. Principal cellist, Václav Petr puts it succinctly, “Semyon is very precise and cares about every single little detail, but also is friendly and warm. He’s strict when he needs to be, but is very approachable, too. It’s a wonderful balance. And he really understands both Slavic and Western musical approaches, which is perfect for Tchaikovsky. He really combines the best of both worlds.” This outlook holds great proportion when reviewing this Decca collection.

It was interesting to listen on a purely chronological recording timeline scale: first dating back to 2015 (which began with Volume I (including the Pathétique and Romeo and Juliet) and ending four months ago (in 2019) with Tchaikovsky’s cardinal “Winter Daydreams” and “Little Russian.” The compendium consists of Tchaikovsky’s seven Symphonies (including Manfred [Volume II]), Romeo and Juliet Overture, Serenade for Strings, the symphonic poem, Francesca da Rimini and three Piano Concertos.

Perhaps, the most arresting and intriguing are the Piano Concertos featuring the phenomenal Kirill Gerstein. This reviewer has previously followed his career, and this young man is the perfect choice to affect these œuvres in the grandest of manners. Not only is his technique in full bloom, as evidenced in ”Imaginary Pictures”, but the subsequent rendition of Liszt’s stultifying Transcendental Etudes, makes M. Gerstein the candidate-of-choice to fly through all of Tchaikovsky’s dizzying, climactic passages with electricity and intelligent articulation. He’s the best on all fronts!

Semyon Bychkov holds true to authentication, in the sense that he only records that which was known to (and desired of) the composer himself...“The Tchaikovsky Project” is the absolute. Moreover, based on all the attention to detail by M. Bychkov, it isn’t hard to understand his firm belief in reinstating Alexander Siloti’s 1897 edits inside the second movement of the Piano Concerto n° 2 [“Andante non troppo”]. [Note: it’s unfortunate Decca omitted credit for solo violin.] The statement is grand with Kirill Gerstein keenly untangling these juggernaut notes with assertive persuasion.

There’s ‘wiggle room’ regarding whether or not to incorporate Semyon Bogatyrev’s 1950 permissive and questionable approaches inside the Piano Concerto n° 3 (with incorporation of Tchaikovsky’s fractured posthumous sketches by Sergei Taneyev) which (rightfully) dares dismissal by M. Bychkov, resulting in a straight-edged approach. M. Gerstein shows a degree of gravité moderne as he showcases a complex Tchaikovsky. The middle section’s intricate plurality’s ‘run lines’ are depth defying. Kirill Gerstein marches out with Tchaikovsky in a bang.

Though too numerous to cite, several selections are stand outs: 1) Francesca da Rimini: a magnanimous impression that blisters with fire from beginning to end. 2) Symphony n° 5: the horn’s golden glows inside the “Andante cantabile.” 3) Serenade for Strings: elegant on all fronts with firmly executed grace notes. 4) Symphony n° 3 “Polish”: “Alla tedesca”: sharp triplets scrutinized by a methodical metre, impish in nature; “Scherzo: Allegro vivo”: glassy, silvery nimbleness and super precision; “Andante elegiaco”: soothing horn legato ‘takes the prize.'

As time marches forward, life changes, flexes and reinvigorates. In retrospect, M. Bychkov closes with Symphony n° 1 and n° 2. Was he saving the best for last? In the former, M. Bychkov depicts the symphonic landscape with shimmers of delicacy and an invisible understanding of Tchaikovsky’s [forever] tentativeness: edges are dulled, less abrasive. Brother Modest said the Symphony n° 1 was [Pyotr’s] most laborious. “Coming out of the gate” for the first time is a significant goal for any aspiring artist, but this glance can been seen as the roadway to Tchaikovsky’s inevitable success: fulfilling, traumatic, though monumental. ”Winter Daydreams” ushers in the life with crystalline innocence but wavering with icicles of benevolent aloofness.

Add to Semyon Bychkov's claim-to-fame roster is his patient, methodical crescendo builds. For example, the “Finale” from Symphony n° 2 draws an undertow of grandeur from Mussorgsky’s “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Being a native from St. Petersburg, Semyon Bychkov readily “gets into Tchaikovsky’s head” in a real and imposing way. ”Little Russian” is filled with trinkets of folk-like charm, much to the liking of “The Five.”

The black and white image of Semyon Bychkov with a bowed head bespeaks truth, reality, respect…in thoughtful repose, dwelling on obeisance to Tchaikovsky. We live vicariously through both M. Tchaikovsky and M. Bychkov...they become one, inside this box.

“The Tchaikovsky Project” is an intelligent ‘white-gloved’ standard. Highly recommended.

Semyon Bychkov Website

Christie Grimstad




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