Stalked by tragedy as these pieces are – respectively personal and through literature – these are musically intense and illuminating readings superbly played and clearly and openly recorded, although some (like me) might find the Dvořák Hall overly resonant and the Czech Philharmonic just a little distant, if only ‘at times’.
There is no doubt in my mind however that this beginning to Semyon Bychkov’s Tchaikovsky Project series whets the appetite for further recordings, which hopefully will embrace the Seven Symphonies (Manfred included), documenting this conductor’s love-affair with this composer’s music that extends to London concerts (just gone) and New York (in early 2017).
First and foremost Bychkov is a musician and the ‘Pathétique’ is a Symphony. He focuses on what’s on the page. Whatever story is to be told, we do not get from this fastidious if passionate conductor a string of diary entries from the composer; rather Bychkov sees the Symphony whole – he ebbs and flows it convincingly, ensures that details and dynamics are immaculately tailored, appreciates structure, and has the Czech Philharmonic playing for all its considerable and seasoned worth, brilliantly and beautifully. Musical values are paramount, there is also no lack of emotion and eloquence; this ‘Pathétique’ is certainly compelling and illuminating, the first movement fully charged and indivisible, the 5/4 second moulded expressively, the third-movement March exhilarating with a tempo that also serves precise articulation, and the slow Finale, which fades to nothing, is very moving without being histrionic.
Romeo and Juliet is similarly balanced between sterling musicianship and vivid narrative. It’s an account laden with incident and revealing observations, and what a piece it is, like say Elgar’s Enigma Variations, imperishable. Bychkov dispatches Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers in nineteen minutes (at the other extreme, Celibidache’s stunning Munich account is twenty-eight) but there’s no rush, rather a completeness of approach that reaches a white-hot adrenaline rush. I always want an imposing timpani stroke at the end and a long-held chord: Bychkov ensures both.
There was no need for Decca to hype this release with the “bound to set a new standard” tosh (which claims superiority over a century of other versions, Karajan, Mravinsky...) and makes the critical listener want to find faults. In fact, I can’t, for this is a thoroughly impressive and involving collection on its own terms and further volumes are keenly anticipated. Like Oliver Twist, I want more.