Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov The Tchaikovsky Project | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Czech PO/Bychkov
(Decca, seven CDs)
The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra clearly understands Tchaikovsky, but conductor Semyon Bychkov is too pushy

Semyon Bychkov took over as the Czech Philharmonic’s chief conductor in 2018, but he’d began to work on his Tchaikovsky Project with the orchestra two years earlier, when their version of the Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique, appeared. That was followed a year later by Manfred, and those two recordings now form part of the completed cycle, which takes in all six of the numbered symphonies, as well as the Serenade for Strings, the fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet and the symphonic fantasy after Dante, Francesca da Rimini, together with the three piano concertos, in which Kirill Gerstein is the soloist.

The Tchaikovsky Project album art work.
The Tchaikovsky Project album art work. Photograph: Decca

In many ways, that initial pair of releases turns out to have faithfully anticipated the strengths and weaknesses of the set as a whole. The orchestral playing is consistently outstanding – rich, characterful, lyrically responsive – so that it’s easy to understand why Bychkov was so keen to perform Tchaikovsky with the Czech musicians. But he does overdo things, with slow tempi and expressive mouldings that hold the music back when it needs to move forward. As in the Pathétique, there’s no denying the power of the climaxes in the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, even when they hang fire elsewhere, but the three earlier symphonies really need a consistently lighter touch than Bychkov’s. The drama of Manfred, though, is magnificently projected, just as it is in Romeo and Juliet (with the Czech Philharmonic strings at their finest) and Francesca da Rimini.

But the piano concertos are less much less convincing; Gerstein is certainly technically fluent, but his playing seems brittle and superficial. The decision to opt for the Grieg-like original version of the First Concerto, rather than the one we know so well today, gives that performance curiosity value at least, but as with the symphonies, there are more satisfying versions of all three works to be found quite easily.

Also out this week

The latest of Sony Classical’s bargain boxes, compiled from the Columbia and RCA archives, is devoted to one of the most underrated great pianists of the 20th century, Rudolf Firkušný. Recorded between 1949 and 1993, the 18-disc collection includes concertos and chamber music as well as works for solo piano. There’s an emphasis on the Czech repertory, in which Firkušný’s performances remain unsurpassed – two surveys of Janáček’s piano music, two versions of Dvořák’s concerto and performances of his chamber music with the Juilliard Quartet, as well as solo pieces and concertos by Martinů.

There’s core repertory too – Mozart, Schubert, Schumann – and a few oddities, such as a 1951 disc of Samuel Barber. It’s a treasury of wonderfully refined performances, which always allows the music to speak for itself.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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