Michael Tanner Interviews Semyon Bychkov

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 8 July 2011 | 1:20:00 am

From December 2010. Did I mention how much I love his Lohengrin?

Source: The Spectator

Semyon Bychkov has rather unspectacularly become one of the world’s most sought after conductors, and at present he is in London to conduct a series of performances of Wagner’s now least often staged canonical opera, Tannhäuser, at the Royal Opera House.

He was trained in St Petersburg, at that time Leningrad, by the apparently legendary Ilya Musin; but at least as important was the long-time chief conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Yevgeny Mravinsky, an old-style orchestral tyrant, the sensational results of whose leadership can still be heard in many recordings. Bychkov felt constrained, oppressed in the Soviet Union, and was allowed to leave in 1975, going to the United States via Vienna and Rome. He conducted first student orchestras, then fairly famous US ones, until he returned to Europe in 1983, and was soon conducting the Royal Concertgebouw.

In 1985 he made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, replacing first Riccardo Muti and then Eugen Jochum. It was the time when Karajan was at loggerheads with the orchestra he had led for so long, and physically failing. Asked who he would like to succeed him, he said, first, Carlos Kleiber, a supreme conductor famous partly for the extreme rarity of his performances (he gave 96 concerts in a long life) and his tiny repertoire; and next Bychkov, whose name meant little to most music lovers at the time.

Since then, Bychkov has conducted virtually all the world’s great orchestras, and has appeared in many opera houses. His repertoire is wide, but with odd exceptions, such as a few performances of Bach’s Mass in B minor, he has concentrated on romantic and modern works, with Russian, German and Italian music predominating. Last year he conducted a series of performances, both staged and in concert, of Wagner’s Lohengrin, the ones at the Royal Opera deservedly getting rapturous notices from everyone, as did the recording made at the time. And now one has the highest hopes for Tannhäuser, once the most popular of all Wagner’s works, now a rarity. Wagner himself was dissatisfied with it, not only revising it constantly, which he didn’t do with any of his other works (except for the end of The FlyingDutchman), but also famously telling his wife Cosima a few weeks before he died in 1883, ‘I still owe the world a Tannhäuser’ (the opera had been premièred in 1845).

When I met Bychkov the first thing we talked about — his English is extremely fluent, vivid, emphatic and has a powerful Russian accent — was the various versions of Tannhäuser. There are basically two, to each of which Wagner made modifications. The first is known as the Dresden version, since that was where it was first produced. Wagner was particularly, and rightly, dissatisfied with the low dramatic temperature of the scene between Tannhäuser and Venus; there is some very sensual music in the opera, but not, as there should be, between that pair. When he was asked to stage it in Paris in 1860 he rewrote the ballet to astounding effect, and improved the Venus scene immeasurably. But he went on tinkering with it until its production in Vienna in 1875.

Bychkov is adamant that the composer’s last thoughts are the ones to be respected, he can see no grounds for sticking with any of the earlier versions. When I tell him that the last time the Paris or Paris-based version was done in Bayreuth was in 1931, under Toscanini, he is appalled. But it tends to be the, or a, Dresden version that is done everywhere, on the dubious grounds of stylistic consistency. Bychkov is concerned with dramatic and musical cogency, and has no doubt that Vienna was the place where that was best achieved. So at last we shall have the chance to see that at Covent Garden.

Another reason for the rarity of Tannhäuser is that there are few tenors who can sing the part, or who are even prepared to try. The tessitura of the role is higher than that of any of Wagner’s other tenor roles, though it is shorter than some of them. In 1975 Jon Vickers abandoned his attempt on it during rehearsals, claiming that it offended his Christian beliefs (hadn’t he read it to the end before he started the rehearsals?), but now, in Johan Botha, there is a singer who is not only prepared to take on the role but also doesn’t see it as an especially difficult one, vocally. Bychkov is convinced that Botha is the finest exponent of Tannhäuser since René Kollo, the German who tackled it in the 1980s. And Bychkov admires Botha not only for his singing, but also for his conscientiousness as an artist. He attends all the rehearsals, sitting and listening to everything that is being said, in order to immerse himself in the part. Botha is a very large man indeed, as anyone who saw him as Lohengrin will remember: yet his size drew no smiles, for he moves and acts with a restrained dignity that makes it irrelevant, and sinks himself into the part so that for once you really do seem to be seeing, as well as hearing, the character, not the singer.