Just as the Second Night of the BBC Proms 2019 was the real First Night of the Proms in terms of musical quality, (Please read my review here), Semyon Bychkov's Prom with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra was probably the real Last Night of the Proms, since the official Last Night of the Prom is party time, when everyone has a good time, enjoying lighter fare, and so it should be ! But Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra reminded us that good music, well performed, represents the vision of Sir Henry Wood. The Last Night we know now only dates from Malcolm Sargent.
Bychkov's appointment as Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic was unexpected, though it was clear that the government and the management wanted someone who would please the public, recording companies, foreign organizations and the Ministry of Culture. (Please read what I wrote at the time). Given that the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra's reputation is based on its unique mastery of Czech repertoire, this signalled a departure. Not without precedent : In 1991, Gerd Albrecht the then governement imposed on the orchestra, hoping that that would increase its international profile and sell more records. Though Albrecht was a very great conductor, the match was not made in heaven. Controversially, the orchestra was split into two. The Prague Philharmonia (PK) still thrives and is very good. If the governemnt again wanted a big name and recording contracts, that's what they have with Bychkov. His advantage was that Decca sponsored Bychkov's Tchaikovsky Project, "Beloved Friends", which has been around for years. He conducted the Project with several different orchestras many times (including at the Barbican, a good series with Kiril Gerstein, but which somehow didn't sell despite massive advertising). Bychkov took the Czech Phil on a highly publicized tour of The United States (with two stops in non-major venues in London and Vienna). Not really an "international" tour. Bychkov is good (though his WDR Köln were somewhat uneven) , but he's developed iunto a truly great conductor of repertoire closest to his heart -Tchaikovsky, for example, and Russian repertoire, and outstanding opera.
A wonderful performance, geared around Bychkov's strengths, the Czech Philharmonic playing with animated enthusiasm. Acknowledging the orchestra's grand traditions, Bychkov started with extracts from Smetana's The Bartered Bride - the Overture and three of the dances : the opera in miniature. Wonderfully vivid, bursting with energy. Though the plot is folkloristic, there's far more to the opera than pastoral kitsch . It's an explosion of energy and high spirits : the burgeoning of Spring and new growth (which is why marriage matters to peasants). The lovers see off those who willl trade them off : they remain uncowed and independent. Bychkov's tempi were fast, and he kept pushing, forcing his players forward. They are so good that they didn't miss a beat. Just as dancing is a physical workout, so should this music evolve. The tension between punch and lyricism was suitably tight, emphatic timpani setting a strong pulse, from which the freedom of the dance figures flew. At moments the brass had an almost "alpine" atmosphere - there are mountains in Bohemia, and the peasants are hardy.
With the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Bychkov was in home territory. In concert performance, the soloist Elena Stikhina was impressive enough, but the orchestra excelled. Bychkov has conducted Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, with them in the past.
More core Bychkov repertoire with Shostakovich Symphony no 8 ("Stalingrad") Op 65 (1943) another very good performance, the orchestra playing with great alacrity : sharply defined staccato, drum rolls and brass fanfares, crashing cymbals, a forbidding hum in the strings. The cor anglais rose like a spectre, like smoke from the ruins of battle, ominous strings (celli, basses, later violins and violas) groaning in its aftermath. The Allegretto and Allegro function as scherzos. In the first, impish figures screamed, and woodwinds rushed into manic dance. In the second, whirring sounds, pipes and pistons, evoking at once an infernal machine, yet also, perhaps a sly reference to the relentless state machinery of the Stalinist era - the worship of technology in Soviet Realism taken to extremes. Hence the mock gaiety of the brass and percussion, in mimicry of military parades. A restrained, but moving finale, the "hollow" nature of the brass reflecting the "machinery" that had gone before. Perhaps this will be a new direction for the Czech Philhramonic Orchestra. But pray that they don't lose what they do best of all, even if it's not "international-friendly".