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The outspoken conductor who conveys Mahler’s ‘crazy tension’

Since being enchanted by the music of Gustav Mahler as a child, Semyon Bychkov has become one of the composer’s most acclaimed interpreters and a conductor with a powerful conscience

Two boys were struck by musical coups de foudre, one in Bohemia, the other in the former Soviet Union, a century apart. Their respective epiphanies are elements of the back story of conductor Semyon Bychkov’s recording with the Czech Philharmonic of Gustav Mahler’s nine symphonies.

Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic, belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire when Mahler (1860-1911) grew up there. The boy fled into the streets to escape his parents’ violent disputes. On hearing a tune played by an organ-grinder, he was suffused with a sense of wellbeing. Mahler traced his musical vocation to that moment.

The second epiphany was Bychkov’s own, in the early 1960s, when he was a preadolescent enrolled at the Glinka music school in Leningrad.

“The school building is connected to the Glinka Capella concert hall,” Bychkov recalls. “During breaks I would run to see what was being rehearsed by the philharmonic orchestra. I listened backstage, unseen. That day, I heard something amazing, phenomenal. I sat there mesmerised. I forgot to go to my next class.”

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Bychkov had never heard of Mahler, but when he went outside, he saw posters announcing a recital of Mahler’s Third Symphony. The music which had transported him was the last movement of the Third Symphony, subtitled What Love Tells Me.

Bychkov celebrates his 70th birthday on November 30th, showered with honours. The 62nd Musical America Awards recently named him Conductor of the Year 2023. The Royal Academy of Music awarded him an honorary doctorate last July. He was International Opera Awards Conductor of the Year 2015. BBC Music Magazine made his recording of Wagner’s Lohengrin Record of the Year 2010.

Mahler was better known as a conductor than as a composer in his lifetime. He influenced many 20th-century composers but did not gain global recognition until around 1960, when Leonard Bernstein “revealed Mahler in such a way that the world became obsessed by Mahler”, Bychkov says. A 2016 survey of 151 orchestra conductors by BBC Music Magazine ranked three of Mahler’s symphonies in the top 10 of all time.

If one knows only one work by Mahler, it is probably the adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, which Luchino Visconti used as the theme for his film Death in Venice.

“The funny thing is that the adagietto has nothing to do with death,” Bychkov says. “Mahler wrote it as a love letter to his wife Alma. People get used to the tempo in the film, where it lasts 13 to 14 minutes. When Mahler conducted it, the adagietto lasted between seven and nine and a half minutes. Beautiful as it sounds, the film completely distorts the character of the music.”

Mahler’s compositions often draw on the sounds of his childhood. Street music, military fanfares, Klezmer (the folk music of Ashkenazi Jews), the waltz and ländler dance are interspersed with passages of soaring lyricism, titanic grandeur and inconsolable despair. The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius quoted Mahler, saying: “the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

Perhaps more than any composer before him, Mahler wrote his own life, including his miserable childhood, into his music. When his younger brother Ernst died in Mahler’s arms, the 15-year-old Mahler started an opera in memory of his lost brother. Seven of Mahler’s 13 siblings would die before adulthood. His own health was poor, his relationships fraught. He converted to Catholicism in 1897, probably in the hope of escaping anti-Semitism in Vienna.

Mahler married Alma Schindler, who was 19 years his junior, in 1902. His and Alma’s first daughter, Maria Anna, died in 1907. Alma believed that his earlier composition of the heart-wrenching Songs on the Deaths of Infants was somehow to blame for the child’s death.

Mahler was diagnosed with heart disease and discovered Alma’s affair with the architect Walter Gropius. He sought help from Sigmund Freud in Vienna.

“Alma was a very gifted composer, who left some marvellous songs,” Bychkov says. But Mahler decided there could be only one composer in the family. Freud told him he had been wrong to block Alma’s career. He changed and tried to encourage her.

It was “too little too late”, Bychkov says. “The resentment must have been enormous. Had she been able to continue creating, perhaps things would have turned out differently.”

By contrast, Bychkov and his wife of 35 years, the French concert pianist Marielle Labèque, are a rare example of a harmonious marriage in the upper echelons of classical music. Bychkov and I talk on the terrace of the Basque Country house that he and Labèque share, overlooking rolling hills and the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance. He and Labèque talk about music “all the time”, he says. “She shares my life so completely, as I share hers.”

Mahler’s music can be difficult, for audiences as well as musicians. The Third Symphony is reputedly the longest ever written. The Eighth is known as the Symphony of the Thousand, because it has sometimes been staged with several choirs, soloists and instrumentalists totalling more than 1,000 performers.

The symphonies swing abruptly from heavenly sweetness to crashing dissonance. “Like life itself,” Bychkov says. “There are a multitude of sudden changes which represent a phenomenal challenge.”

Mahler forced musicians to rehearse endlessly, until he obtained the sound he heard in his inner ear. Bychkov once played Mahler’s Sixth symphony as a guest conductor with the Vienna Philharmonic. “I felt a tension inside the orchestra, a certain love-hate. The only explanation I could find was that they still hate him for what he did to their predecessors, though they were not born yet,” he laughs. “That’s the hate part. But they cannot resist loving him either, and that creates a crazy tension which is very Vienna.”

Bychkov has been one of the most outspoken critics in the music world of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Unlike many politicians and diplomats, he was sure it would happen, because of the Russian build-up on Ukraine’s borders. “Like a theatre play with a gun hanging on the wall, you could be sure it would be used eventually,” he says.

Bychkov woke up in Prague at 4am on February 24th and penned a statement recalling his Russian roots, his birth in St Petersburg, a grandfather who died fighting for the Soviet Union, family members exterminated by the Nazis in Odesa, his father twice wounded in the second World War and his mother who survived the 900-day siege of Leningrad. “Russian culture, its language, its noble traditions are in my blood ... but there are moments in life when silence in the face of evil becomes its accomplice.”

At a protest on Wenceslas Square, Bychkov recalled the Soviet tanks that had gathered there during the repression of the 1968 Prague Spring. He broke an engagement with the Russian Youth Orchestra in Moscow on the grounds that to go ahead with it would be “an unconscionable act of acquiescence”. He has spoken and written eloquently of the dilemma of Russian artists faced with the choice of supporting the war, remaining silent, risking persecution or death if they oppose it, or emigrating.

On a European concert tour this autumn, Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic played Shostakovich’s 11th symphony, which was ostensibly about the Tsar’s bloody repression of a protest outside the Winter Palace in 1905, but which many interpreted as a condemnation of the cruelty of Soviet rule. Bychkov’s message in playing it is that Putin enslaves the Russian people, like the Soviets and Czars before him.

Although he did some composing in his youth, Bychkov never felt he had the unique gift it took to be a composer. “We are interpreters,” he says of himself and fellow conductors. “One should never forget the composers are the gods, the creators. We are privileged to serve them.”

Bychkov was recording the Tchaikovsky Project – the complete symphonies, orchestral works and piano concertos – with the Czech Philharmonic when the orchestra’s chief conductor died. A few days later, most of the orchestra’s 124 members crowded into his dressingroom after a performance. Violinist Josef Spacek spoke for his colleagues, saying: “you bring out the best in us. We want you to be our director-conductor. We want you to be our daddy”.

“How can you refuse 124 orphans?” Bychkov laughs. He became the orchestra’s chief conductor and music director in 2018. In September, his contract was extended through 2028.

Pentatone released Bychkov’s recording with the Czech Philharmonic of Mahler’s Fifth symphony last month. A particularly sweet and gentle Fourth symphony, with the Israeli soprano Chen Reiss, preceded it in April. Number 2, the Resurrection Symphony, will come out next spring; the full cycle in 2025. Pentatone will mark the Year of Czech Music in 2024 with Bychkov-Czech Philharmonic recordings of Dvorak and Smetana.

The Czech Philharmonic is “the most beautiful instrument”, Bychkov says. “It has to do with chemistry, the right character fit, the beauty of Prague.” He recorded Mahler’s Seventh symphony, one of the most difficult, this autumn. “When we finished, I told the musicians they are the orchestra of my life.”

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times