It seems odd to call a major conductor with an international career "unlucky", but you could probably make a case for Semyon Bychkov. As a young collector, I remember seeing his name here and there among the used CD racks, and reading less than glowing reviews of his work. He was on Philips at the height of the major label implosion, and faced stiff competition in his favorite music from names like Valery Gergiev. Now that Gergiev has wandered off to work on independent labels with varying success, it seems Decca feels the time is right for a new cycle of Tchaikovsky's great orchestral works.
The Czech Philharmonic has a history in this music on disc that goes all the way back to at least Vaclav Talich. The playing is magnificent. The various sections of the orchestra still seem to hold a distinctive sound, and Bychkov proves a sympathetic advocate for the composer. Dynamically speaking, there is an appreciable flexibility of pulse and the quieter sections are especially beautiful. That said, there are few times where I really had to sit up and listen. The orchestral picture is magnificent, but not especially imposing from an emotional perspective. Bychkov doesn't dig in as hard as I would like during the first movement, and the initial explosion of sound as the drama heightens fails to excite. However, the sections that follow are thrilling. I miss the angst and power of a Bernstein, or of the classic Russian interpretations from the 50s and 60s, but the sheer sweep of sound may prove convincing on its own terms. I confess that there is a certain joy in having the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in this music that negates any hesitation I have concerning Bychkov. As I said, he does prove sympathetic, particularly in quieter sections where he coaxes some lovely playing.
The second movement waltz is very beautiful, but also somewhat charmless and a touch mushy. It needs a hair more forward drive and rhythmic point to make an impact. There are some nice touches dynamically, and the playing is without peer. The third movement is a high point of this performance. A nice "bite" to the sound along with some stunning ensemble work makes a lasting impression. I read some negative U.K.press about tempos in this recording, but this march strikes me as just about ideal. Bychkov seems more alert here than previously, and I get the feeling that everyone had a good time during these sections of the recording sessions.
The finale is nicely opened, with predictably beautiful woodwind and string phrasing. Here, the emotional climate is again raised since the rather cool first movement. While not exactly drenched in despair, there is notably more feeling here. Unfortunately, some quieter moments turn a tad droopy. When the volume goes up, so does the tension. The climaxes are very effective. Overall, this is an uneven performance of this much-loved symphony that holds few surprises but features a fine last two set of movements and some wonderful playing throughout.
Roméo & Juliet hardly lacks for excellent renditions either. The playing remains superlative and I find the tone poem a little more consistent than the symphony was. That doesn't mean it's great, and indeed the temperature is just a little too low for my liking. It reminds me of Haitink with the Concertgebouw, a resplendently garbed but somewhat tepid reading that sounded so pretty you weren't likely to care much. But Bychkov is not Haitink, and for both excitement and beauty of sound at their finest, one must look elsewhere. I honestly don't know what to expect from the rest of this series, but at worst, we'll have a nicely recorded and technically brilliant cycle with one of the world's great orchestras. Make no mistake, there's potential for a great deal more than that.
Copyright © 2016, Brian Wigman