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Conductor Semyon Bychkov on Tchaikovsky

Eva Mackevic

BY Eva Mackevic

20th Aug 2019 Music

Conductor Semyon Bychkov on Tchaikovsky

To celebrate the upcoming release of The Tchaikovsky Project boxset on Decca Classics, conductor Semyon Bychkov talks us through the intricacies of Tchaikovsky’s music and the mysteries that enshroud his life till this day

RD: You’ve recently completed work on the Tchaikovsky Project with the Czech Philharmonic which comprises all the composer’s symphonies, three piano concertos, Romeo & JulietSerenade for Strings and Francesca da Rimini. How did you come up with the idea for this project?

SB: I conducted the Czech Philharmonic a few years ago. It was unplanned though. I just happened to be in Moscow conducting at the time and helped them out when someone dropped out, and so, we had a week of concerts and it was very, very nice. A few months later, I was told that Decca and the Czech Philharmonic wanted to record a Tchaikovsky cycle and they asked if I’d like to do that. I just felt instinctively, Yes, I would find it quite fascinating

Semyon with the Czech Philharmonic. Image via Petra Hajska 

We all know how the Russians would play his music. We all know how non-Russians would play it. But with the Czechs, it’s an interesting constellation of their DNA. They’re Slavs, so, it’s Eastern Europe. But at the same time, their history is so connected to Western culture. I felt that expressing Tchaikovsky’s music with them would bring something new to it. 


RD: What do you mean when you say that Russians and Westerners play Tchaikovsky’s music differently?

SB: You know, it’s the authenticity of the spirit of music. As the Italians are born with Verdi as their mother’s milk, so are the Russians with Tchaikovsky, or the Germans with Beethoven. Everybody has this deep connection to the music they’re born with. But there are also plenty of interpretations of music by the natives that will be unconvincing, which defies the stereotype that one has to be born in Russia in order to interpret the music of Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich in a way that is true. No, it’s not enough. It helps, but it’s not enough.

Image via Marco Borggreve

What’s interesting for us as musicians is the challenge of going outside of our own culture and identifying with the culture of others. If we decide to address it, we have to identify with it, we have to penetrate, we have to get under the skin of it. You know Daniel Day Lewis? The Boxer, My Left Foot, The Last of the Mohicans—these are completely different characters that he plays. How did he prepare for that? During the entire period of filming My Left Foot, he lived as a man who could only use his left foot. When he did The Boxer, he worked with the man who the character is based on. The Last of Mohicans—he learned to fight with tomahawks and skin animals. That’s what I mean by identification. We have to do exactly the same as musicians.


RD: How much does Tchaikovsky’s music reveal about him as a person?  

SB: A lot. While Shostakovich was the spokesperson for his people when we think of Russia’s horrible 20th-century history, Tchaikovsky was absolutely non-political even though he had his points of view. Tchaikovsky’s personal. The person behind the music emerges from letters and everything that was written about him, and it’s exactly what one imagines he would be: always noble; unbelievably emotional; phenomenal intellect; very strongly developed thoughts on matters like religion, art, composition, behaviour.

"Tchaikovsky wasn't an angel—nobody is"

It’s not to say that he was an angel. He wasn’t one. Nobody is. And from what you can hear in the music and what you read about him helps you see that he and his music are one. And it’s not always the case. People who think about such things will come to realise that Wagner so often behaved in a very… unacceptable way. Yet when you encounter his art, it’s simply beyond description.


RD: It’s funny you mention Tchaikovsky’s nobility because he was known to have quite a bad temper, wasn’t he?

SB: Tchaikovsky wasn’t an angel. But he was genuinely a noble person, and that nobility of spirit shines so clearly through the music. It’s never ugly. It’s very dramatic. It’s very conflictual. He had to be a conflictual individual. Can you imagine someone like him living in a society where homosexuality was actually considered a crime? He could have been easily sent to prison. So you live in a permanent conflict because you have to hide who you really are in terms of your nature and your needs.


He would often write in his letters that he’d lost his creativity, and he’s just unable to compose anything new and fresh. That’s a source of tremendous conflict for someone whose need it is to create something from nothing. If a sculptor creates something from nothing, his building material is whatever he chooses it to be. Composers’ building material happens to be sound. And not every sound will be music until it becomes music. You have to find it. So, we’re kind of like extra-terrestrials.


RD: Yet there’s still quite a debate around whether Tchaikovsky was homosexual or not?

SB: Well, the final decision has been made by the current minister of culture of Russia. He said Tchaikovsky was not homosexual—he simply never found the right woman. That’s the quote. I don’t believe that anybody in his right mind today can say that Tchaikovsky was not a homosexual. But that’s politics. They have an ideology to defend. Tchaikovsky happens to be god; well, god cannot be imperfect. If homosexuality is deemed to be an imperfection, you can’t admit that god could be imperfect. Therefore, it’s not true.


RD: What about the mystery of his death?

SB: It remains a huge debate how his life ended. And with that comes the question of the meaning of the Symphony No. 6, Pathétique. The official version was that he drank some unboiled water and died of cholera poisoning. But then you also have to ask the question, “Have we ever seen a single case of a cholera poisoning?” Usually, it’s an epidemic.

Tchaikovsky's tomb at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery

Also, the handling of Tchaikovsky’s corpse was not in accordance with official regulations for victims of cholera. Thousands of people came to say goodbye. There was a huge procession on the street just like for Verdi in Milan when he died, and the coffin was open. People came and kissed him on his forehead. That would have never happened had he died of cholera. As I grew up in the musical circles in Leningrad at that time, the elders always said and believed that he killed himself. 


"Many of the Russian composers at the time were dilettantes"


RD: Tell us a bit more about the Pathetique Symphony?

SB: What interests me as an interpreter of his music is the meaning of this symphony. The most common opinion on it has always been: here is the man who writes a requiem to himself, comes to terms with it, and it’s a resignation to death. But when I look at that last movement, I look at the score, I see what musical material it’s built on, what the themes are, what the tempo indications from Tchaikovsky, which are terribly important, are… when I look at all that, I come to a completely different conclusion. 

It is not resignation and acceptance of death. It’s a protest against it. And that’s easy to understand. He was 53 years old. Who would accept the idea of dying? He wasn’t ill. He was rundown emotionally, yes, but he was not terminally ill. I do believe that he took his own life. And I believe that it is in the music.


RD: Looking at his body of work in general, do you think there’s a lot of pain there?

SB: Oh yeah. From the very beginning. It’s very interesting. One of the composers that he completely worshipped and adored was Mozart. When anyone thinks of Mozart, they always think what an amazing ray of sunshine he was. And yet, whatever piece of Mozart you will hear, there will always be a moment of tragedy or at least drama.

It’s the same thing with Tchaikovsky except that in his music the drama is always present. The struggle is always present. The conflict is always present. What has evolved with him I think throughout his lifetime is that the way he expressed the same sentiments in the beginning was much more verbose. As he went on, he became more and more laconic.


RD: Tell us about this split between traditional Russian elements and adapted Western elements in his music? It caused him a lot of trouble, didn’t it?  

SB: It’s not just true of music. It’s a historical dilemma that Russia is not able to resolve itself. It can never decide where it is. Is it in the East or West? It’s always torn with conflict between those who believe in the connection with the West and those who don’t.

From my perspective, his music is unmistakably Russian in spirit. He expresses it through the forms and through the—how shall I say it?—professionalism of Western compositional practice, which was unknown to most of the Russian composers of his time. Many of them were dilettantes. Tchaikovsky was one of the very few who lived his life as a composer once he was able to when he finally quit teaching, and occupied himself in composition thanks to Nadezhda von Meck.

Tchaikovsky's long-time patron, Nadezhda von Meck 

Rimsky-Korsakov, for example, was a professor as well as a composer. Borodin was a chemist. Cui was writing about music while he was a navy officer. Dilettantism didn’t bother them. What mattered was that the melodies reflected the spirit of Russian folk music.

"The initial introduction to a composer can be successful depending on what one hears first: it can open the doors; it can also close them"

But that’s just the beginning. What do you do with those melodies? You have to develop them. And this is where Tchaikovsky came under very, very severe criticism. Interestingly enough, the public got it right. He was loved in his time, he was loved as a man as well, but his music was loved too. It was not always a colossal success, not every work had this amazing success, but it doesn’t matter. His music was basically loved, and it remains so till this day.


RD: Tchaikovsky was very specific about the pianists who would perform his work—are you specific about the pianists you work with as a conductor?

SB: In football, the Spanish invented this tiki-taka which means touching the ball once and immediately passing it to the next player. In their most glorious time several years ago, it was just crazy to see how they did it. How do they know that a partner will be behind them in a particular place to pass the ball to them with absolute precision? Because they train like crazy, because they all put up with the same philosophy of the game, and they feel each other.

In music, we need to do exactly the same. When you are in tune with another person in music or in life, it doesn’t actually make any difference. There’s a feeling where the words are not even necessary sometimes. You just know. And sometimes, it’s the opposite. You can explain all you want, but it’s not felt in the same way. And then it doesn’t work. 

Semyon with pianist Kirill Gerstein. Image via Petr Kadlec  

Those are of course the extremes. And then there is the middle where you meet and you discuss and you try and you arrive at something, and you do it and it can go very well. So, it really depends on the personalities. There is a famous story of Bernstein inviting Glenn Gould to play Brahms’ First Concerto, and Lenny just couldn’t accept Gould’s way with the piece and he made it known. He just couldn’t. Does that make Gould any smaller? No. Does it mean Bernstein’s smaller or bigger? No. It just wasn’t… compatible. And this recording cycle, the opposite is true. Kirill Gerstein [the pianist on The Tchaikovsky Project] and I are. 


RD: Where do you recommend starting with Tchaikovsky?

SB: It is kind of pointless for me to give advice on this even though I do realise that sometimes, the initial introduction to a composer can be successful depending on what one hears first. It can open the doors. It can also close them. But I don’t think I would dare to be specific. There’s this piano piece by Tchaikovsky, The Seasons. And what makes it universal is that everyone can connect to the emotion and tenderness of the music. Everyone can connect to beauty except those who reject the idea of beauty. Which is fine, but again, it’s an individual thing. But he’s one of the most performed composers and there’s a good reason why.


Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic release The Tchaikovsky Project boxset on Decca Classics on August 30. They appear together for the first time at the BBC Proms on September 10



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