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Monday, January 23, 2017

Festival Preview: Beloved Friend: Tchaikovsky and his World

The New York Philharmonic goes all-in on the Russian romantic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Semyon Bychkov and friend. Original promotional photograph © 2016 Decca Classics. 
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died in 1893, but earned immortality, remaining far and away the most popular Russian composer of the 19th century. Starting this Thursday, his life and legacy are the subject of a new festival at the New York Philharmonic, Beloved Friend: Tchaikovsky and his World. The festival continues for three weeks, bringing the warmth and passion of his music to the stage of David Geffen Hall and other venues. Tickets and information are available here.

Beloved Friend is the brainchild of conductor Semyon Bychkov, one of the foremost interpreters of Tchaikovsky's music working today. Mr. Bychkov was born in Soviet Russia but left that country in 1974, arriving in Vienna with only $100 in his pocket. He then emigrated to the United States and matriculated at the Mannes College of Music. His background in both worlds makes him the ideal ambassador for this music.

One would argue that Tchaikovsky, as an established creator of war-horse works like the two Piano Concertos and the six Symphonies (not to mention the ballet scores for Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty) needs no such emissary. However, Mr. Bychkov has been carefully reexamining the texts of the late symphonies, and his new approach to familiar works like the Sixth Symphony sound surprising, fresh and bold.

This radical approach to Tchaikovsky can be heard in a superb new Decca recording of the Sixth made with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Tempos are bold and crisp, with precise string playing and a passionate utterance of the main theme of the first movement, its anguish being drawn and squeezed from the score like poison from a wound. The crie de couer follows, with the brass roaring forth its rage like a wounded animal before returning to the main theme.

The later movements are more radical, with the waltzing second movement having more lilt and lift. The charging Scherzo is more restrained, with  Mr. Bychkov emphasizing a springing tempo with help from the taut Czech strings. Its optimism is almost obnoxious here, with a gallows wit that sets the listener up for the jarring finale.

Here, the finale might confound and surprise the unwary listener. Mr. Bychkov tones down the despair and anguish in this slow movement. He bends the notes into a serene structure of Mahlerian acceptance, making this famous finish all the more powerful. The disc is filled out by an expansive performance of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture which alas is not on the schedule for this coming festival.

The concerts scheduled include the new version of the Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Kirill Gerstein, a champion of this new textual interpretation as the soloist) the rarely heard program symphony "Manfred" and an evening of Tchaikovsky Chamber Music at the 92nd Street Y. Here's a complete list of programming:

Jan. 24: Peter The Great (at Merkin Concert Hall)
An evening of Russian songs including works by Tchaikovsky and songs by Taneyev and Arensky, his most famous students, curated by Steven Blier and the New York Festival of Song.

Jan. 25: Insights at the Atrium: Semyon Bychkov (at David Rubinstein Atrium at Lincoln Center)
Mr. Bychkov discusses his radical approach to Tchaikovsky and his ongoing Tchaikovsky Project as well as the coming concerts.

Jan. 26-28: Piano Concerto No. 2, Symphony No. 5 (at David Geffen Hall)
Pianist Yefim Bronfman joins the New York Philharmonic for the first Tchaikovsky concert of the festival, featuring two of his most popular works. Mr. Bychkov conducts.

Jan. 29: Tchaikovsky's Chamber Music (at 92nd St. Y)
Three chamber pieces featuring Mr. Bronfman and members of the New York Philharmonic.

Feb. 2-7: Piano Concerto No. 1, Manfred Symphony
(at David Geffen Hall)
Kirill Gerstein joins the Philharmonic and Mr. Bychkov to explore his radical new vision for this most beloved of piano concertos, plus the heroic "Manfred."

Feb. 3: Rachmaninoff: Vespers (Church of St. Paul the Apostle)
The Westminster Symphonic Choir takes on this major religious work by Tchaikovsky's heir apparent Sergei Rachmaninoff in the serene setting of this Upper West Side church.

Feb. 9-11: "Pathetique": Symphony No. 6 (at David Geffen Hall)

Is it an enigmatic farewell? A musical suicide note? Both? We'll never know since Tchaikovsky died nine days after the premiere of his last symphony. This festival concluding concert also features the tone poem Francesca di Rimini and the rare Orestia overture by Taneyev.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.