Vladimir Putin, Impaler or Impaled?
The Barbican, 16th March 2022, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Semyon Bychkov, Yuja Wang, reviewed by Leslie Jones
In this long overdue return of an international symphony orchestra to the Barbican, politics overshadowed music. Semyon Bychkov, Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, has condemned Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. He was born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in 1952. When he won the Rachmaninov Conducting Competition at the Leningrad Conservatoire, the KGB cancelled his engagement to conduct the Leningrad Philharmonic as he had applied for an exit visa. Bychkov’s family were Jewish, although predominantly non-observant. State anti-Semitism was a pivotal factor in turning him against the Soviet regime. In a recent statement to the press, alluding to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, Bychkov (now an American citizen) called the Soviet Union the “co-author of …World War Two” and accused it of “…the kidnapping of many nations”. Indicatively, the Ukrainian national anthem preceded the concert proper.
Flamboyant Czech Philharmonic Artist-in-Residence Yuja Wang, born in Beijing, is unquestionably a technically gifted pianist. Witness her accomplished rendition of Rachmaninov’s youthful First Piano Concerto which opened this concert, not to mention an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Her performance, however, was somewhat abrasive and bombastic for such an intimate space.
The composer, after his 1917 revision of the concerto, considered it “really good now”. But in 1944, he acknowledged that “When I tell them in America that I will play the First Concerto, they do not protest but I can see by their faces that they would prefer the Second or Third”. Ms Wang received a rapturous reception, nonetheless.
The Czech Philharmonic packs a punch and Maestro Bychkov is evidently au fait with the Czech musical idiom. In Smetana’s Má Vlast, there are distinct echoes/anticipations of other Czech composers, notably Dvorák, Martinu and Janáček (in particular, the latter’s Sinfonietta). Different aspects of Bohemia’s landscape and history are tellingly evoked. According to one commentator, “a nation’s soul is laid bare by Smetana”. But there’s the rub. In the absence of an international order, violence and war are inevitable, as Saint Augustine maintained (see Paul Kelly, Conflict, War and Revolution, LSE Publishing, 2022). The ‘earthly city’, that ‘community of sinners’, is destined to endure ‘eternal punishment’. And so the infernal cycle begins once again.
Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of Quarterly Review