Semyon Bychkov

Semyon Bychkov’s 2022-23 season, his fifth as chief conductor and music director of the Czech Philharmonic, also marked his 70th birthday which he celebrated in November with three concerts in Prague pairing Beethoven’s Fifth with Shostakovich’s Fifth. The season opened with the official concert to mark the Czech Republic’s Presidency of the European Union and continued at the Prague International Music Festival with concert performances of Dvořák’s Rusalka, which Bychkov later conducted at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 

Bychkov’s inaugural season with the Czech Philharmonic was celebrated with an international tour that took the orchestra from performances at home in Prague to concerts in London, New York, and Washington. The following year saw the culmination of “The Tchaikovsky Project,” the release of a seven-CD box set devoted to Tchaikovsky’s symphonic repertoire and a series of international residencies. Also in his first season, Bychkov instigated the commissioning of 14 new works that have been premièred by the orchestra over the subsequent five seasons.

Over the last two years, the focus of Bychkov’s work with the Czech Philharmonic has turned to the music of Gustav Mahler with performances of the symphonies at the Rudofinum, on tour and ultimately on disc for Pentatone. The recording of the complete Mahler cycle launched in 2022 with the release of Mahler’s Symphony Nos. 4 and 5. Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 was released in April 2023.   

Especially recognised for his interpretations of the core repertoire, Bychkov has also collaborated with many extraordinary contemporary composers, including Luciano Berio, Henri Dutilleux and Maurizio Kagel. More recent collaborations include those with Julian Anderson, Bryce Dessner, Detlev Glanert, Thierry Escaich and Thomas Larcher whose works he has premièred with the Czech Philharmonic, and with the Concertgebouworkest, the Vienna, Berlin, New York and Munich Philharmonic Orchestras and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. 

In common with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov has one foot firmly in the culture of the East and one in the West. Born in St. Petersburg in 1952, Bychkov emigrated to the United States in 1975 and has lived in Europe since the mid-1980s. Singled out for an extraordinarily privileged musical education from the age of 5, Bychkov studied piano before winning his place at the Glinka Choir School where, at age 13, he received his first lesson in conducting. He was 17 when he was accepted at the Leningrad Conservatory to study with the legendary Ilya Musin and, within three years had won the influential Rachmaninov Conducting Competition. Denied his prize of conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic, Bychkov left the Soviet Union.    

By the time Bychkov returned to St. Petersburg in 1989 as the Philharmonic’s principal guest conductor, he had enjoyed success in the United States as music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic. His international career, which began in France with Opéra de Lyon and at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, took off with a series of high-profile cancellations, which resulted in invitations to conduct the New York and Berlin Philharmonics and the Concertgebouworkest. In 1989, he was named music director of the Orchestre de Paris; in 1997, chief conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne and the following year, chief conductor of the Dresden Semperoper.  

Bychkov’s symphonic and operatic repertoire is wide-ranging. He conducts in all the major opera houses including La Scala, Opéra National de Paris, Dresden Semperoper, Wiener Staatsoper, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Teatro Real. Madrid. While principal guest conductor of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, his productions of Janáček’s Jenůfa, Schubert’s Fierrabras, Puccini’s La bohème, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov each won the prestigious Premio Abbiati. In Vienna, he has conducted new productions of Strauss’ Daphne, Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal, and Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, as well as revivals of Strauss’ Elektra and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; while in London, he made his operatic debut with a new production of Strauss’ Elektra, and subsequently conducted new productions of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten and Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Recent productions include Wagner’s Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, Strauss’s Elektra in Vienna, Dvořák’s Rusalka in London, and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Madrid. 

On the concert platform, the combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy has ensured that Bychkov’s performances are highly anticipated. In the United Kingdom, in addition to performances with the London Symphony Orchestra, his honorary titles at the Royal Academy of Music and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms) reflect the warmth of the relationships. In Europe, he tours with the Concertgebouworkest and Munich Philharmonic, as well as being a guest of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Orchestre National de France and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; in the States, he can be heard with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra.

Bychkov made extensive recordings for Philips with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Concertgebouworkest, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. His 13-year collaboration (1997-2010) with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne produced a series of benchmark recordings that included works by Strauss (Elektra, Daphne, Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen, Alpine Symphony, Till Eulenspiegel), Mahler (Symphony No. 3, Das Lied von der Erde), Shostakovich (Symphony Nos. 4, 7, 8, 10, 11), Rachmaninov (The Bells, Symphonic Dances, Symphony No. 2), Verdi (Requiem), a complete cycle of Brahms Symphonies, and works by Detlev Glanert and York Höller. 

His recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was recommended by BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library (2020); Wagner’s Lohengrin was BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Year (2010) and Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2 with the Vienna Philharmonic was BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Month (2018). Of “The Tchaikovsky Project,” released in 2019, BBC Music Magazine wrote, “The most beautiful orchestra playing imaginable can be heard on Semyon Bychkov’s 2017 recording with the Czech Philharmonic, in which Decca’s state-of-the art recording captures every detail.”

In 2015, Bychkov was named Conductor of the Year by the International Opera Awards. He received an honorary doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music in July 2022 and the award for Conductor of the Year from Musical America in October 2022.

Bychkov was one of the first musicians to express his position on the outbreak of the war in Ukraine; he has spoken in support of Ukraine in Prague’s Wenceslas Square; on radio and television in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom and the United States; written by invitation for the Economist; and appeared as a guest on BBC World’s HARDtalk

May 2023