Opera + Classical Music Reviews

A breath of Bohemian spring from the Czech Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov

16 March 2022

Bychkov brings stunning Dvořák and distinguished Janáček performances to the Barbican.

Semyon Bychkov, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, CBS Chorus, Evelina Dobračeva, Lucie Hislcherová, Aleš Briscein & Boris Prýgal (Photo: Petr Kadlec)

Dvořák’s 8th is the most light-hearted of all his symphonies, full of hummable Bohemian melodies and playful orchestration. It brings a breath of warm, flower scented air into any concert hall, and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, under the inspired direction of Semyon Bychkov, unleashed a bottleful of this heady aroma over Wednesday’s Barbican audience, letting us know that spring had (despite the dull weather and heartrending news from Eastern Europe) finally arrived in London.

The work is surely bread and butter to the orchestra, but there was no hint of the workaday in an account that was masterfully engineered in terms of texture, dynamic and speed to give all of Dvořák’s lyric statements their place in the sun, while pulling everything together into a perfectly judged journey. The opening cello statements were a gloriously warm invitation to the work (the front desk cellists smiling with the sheer delight of them), and their passages with the wind later in the movement presented a euphonious amalgam. The horns’ perkiness in the first movement developed into some cheekily near-raucous trilling in the fourth, and the trumpets’ occasional clarion calls cut through the texture with panache.

Czech Philharmonic  Orchestra

Semyon Bychkov (Photo: Petr Kadlec)

Bychkov’s tempi were a revelation: the opening movement was taken at a lick, but the Allegretto of the scherzo was given room to breathe, the delicate, more fluid lilt imbuing the movement with a charming sense of rural informality (there were moments when you wondered whether they were going to make the bar line in time) – all this with some hefty string sections to manage. The build-up to the fourth movement coda was dextrously controlled for tempo and texture to squeeze the maximum out of its contemplative character, and the final gallop of the coda itself was made even more exciting by the momentary hair-raising shifts of speed. A benchmark performance indeed.

“…spring had (despite the dull weather and heartrending news from Eastern Europe) finally arrived in London”

Janáček’s Mša glagolskaja/Glogolitic Mass is an odd work; you get the feeling the composer had written an entirely orchestral piece before a kind friend pointed out that, as a Mass, it probably needed some singers and some words. The result is a work whose orchestral gestures are full of Janáček’s trademark quirky instrumental passages and fierce counterpoint, alternating with sonorous slabs of unison sound; the singers, however, are somewhat of an afterthought. The soloists are either (in the case of the tenor and bass) presented with a massive orchestra to compete with, or (in the case of the mezzo) given less than a minute of music; only the soprano really gets a chance to shine. The chorus is used almost as a single instrument – chanting screeds of homophonic text, interjecting the odd staccato comment, or acting as a kind of vox humana organ stop.

As expected from the Dvořák, the orchestra performed with distinction, and Bychkov’s intelligent direction brought out all of the work’s exciting character from the bright opening trumpet fanfares to the thrilling final ‘Intrada/Exodus’ (surely the best bit of the work). Daniela Valtová Kosinová’s organ playing was technically perfect, but the sound lacked variety. The choral passages from CBSO Chorus were homogenous and well controlled for dynamic (although some work on pronunciation was needed). The soloists, though, were the weak point. Evelina Dobračeva’s soprano was creamy, but perhaps a little too rich and covered for a work that demands a bright texture. Boris Prýgal has a lovely baritone voice that would suit Lieder singing perfectly, but it was lost under the orchestra. In Aleš Briscein’s battle with the band, sadly, Briscein lost, his Heldentenor voice becoming strained, hard and thin in the top register, and only really enjoyable in his quieter, lower-voice solos in the Creed.

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A breath of Bohemian spring from the Czech Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov