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10 Questions for Semyon Bychkov | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Semyon Bychkov

10 Questions for Semyon Bychkov

The Russian maestro on preparing to conduct Tristan und Isolde at the Proms

Semyon Bychkov at the Proms: 'The audience wills you into a performance'© Chris Christodoulou

By the time silence descends on the Royal Albert Hall at five o’clock in the afternoon for a performance that will end six hours later, Semyon Bychkov will have been rehearsing for 60 hours. It breaks down into four days of orchestra readings, with tutti and sectional sessions for each act, then two days of the singers and a pianist, followed by six days of everybody together. And all for one performance of Tristan und Isolde with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Bychkov has a long relationship with Tristan. He first conducted a concert performance of the second act in Turin, and the whole staged opera for the Chicago Lyric Opera. He has been on the podium in Vienna, Paris Opera, in Japan and Cologne, and calculates that he has conducted the opera in various incarnations perhaps 30 times. Alongside him for the Prom he has in Violeta Urmana an Isolde whom he has worked with on several previous performances and in Robert Dean Smith a Tristan whom he will conduct for the first time. And of course there is the BBCSO, who are infrequent Wagnerians. Many know the opera better in its topped-and-tailed incarnation of the Prelude and Liebestod – once described as the unkindest cut in musical history. Bychkov, who has talked more widely to theartsdesk about his life in music, here sticks to the job in hand as he prepares to beat in the so-called Tristan chord.

JASPER REES: How does an orchestra without much of experience of marathon Wagner make ready for Tristan und Isolde?

SEMYON BYCHKOV: It requires them to develop the other side of being a musician because you come in contact with literature - even if it is not a full production with costume and decor, still there is text – with theatre which in this case is imaginary, with the human condition which is specific as opposed to abstract when it is expressed through pure notes. And so it develops the other side of the artist’s connection to music, the connection to the art form, which otherwise when they only play symphonic music they miss.

The same way that those opera orchestras that only play operas, they miss the purely instrumental music. Because there are two sides to that medal. And one would like them to have both. They have to know what they’re playing about, they have to understand what the text is, because in the end it’s a question of integrating all the elements. The musicians of the orchestra need to know what each of those characters is living when they are singing. There are evolutions of those characters, and everyone who is participating in that is expressing the human condition through different means, but the condition is the same and they all have to connect to it.

He could have gone on for another five hours with this piece

And this is why you need 60 hours?

Oh, it’s not enough. I would love to have had 600 hours if I could. It’s really extraordinary the sense of discovery that comes at any stage of living with a piece such as this. When you start with Tristan for the first time, you have to assimilate it, you have to study it, you have to learn it, you have to live with it. There comes a point where you reach a certain altitude. Then you leave it alone, you come back a bit later on. In a way you don’t start right away from the altitude you reached earlier because you’ve been away from it. But you don’t start right at the zero. So you start from the first floor. Eventually you get to the second floor where you stopped last time. But there is a third floor, and a fourth floor, and it never stops.

Is there a musical advantage to working with a non-Wagnerian orchestra?

This is not the orchestra that has it in their blood. Vienna Philharmonic play it regularly: you could say it is in their blood. In the middle of the night they get up, they get inside the middle of the third act and they know immediately where they are situated. In a way the orchestra are where I was many years ago when they have to get inside that, and what is beautiful there is to see not only the sensation that you read in their eyes but you also get to hear often what you won’t get to hear from those who already know the piece so well. It’s sort of like they will serve you the dish and it’s already cooked.

Here it’s in the process of being, so the ingredients haven’t been mixed yet, and as long as they haven’t you take each ingredient and appreciate it for what it’s worth in its purest form, before they will start getting mixed together. And so that brings another sense of discovery which is actually very touching because they are sort of like children discovering how fascinating and complex and challenging and sometimes dangerous the role can be.

Is it energising or exhausting to stand on the podium for five hours?

The best way I probably could describe it is that as a performance unfolds the music takes you with it and you find yourself in the place that you want to stay. You find that it is very tender on your skin, you just want to be there. It’s not a question of length. It can be twice longer. It is as natural as breathing. Do we ever think, we have been breathing now for five hours, it’s time to stop? This music in fact – and all great music – has no beginning and no end because of the way he transforms the material. He composes a tune and then another one and a few of them and we call them leitmotifs. Those ones are associated with Isolde or Tristan or König Marke or whoever but most of the time they are associated with feeling, with a situation: a love motif or a poison motif.

He has a whole bunch of them and he keeps bringing them back and each time they will find themselves a different tonality or in a different orchestral colour where the voice takes over, only to be continued by one of the instruments or the whole orchestra. And so what happens is there is hardly ever a tonal resolution when you go from the harmonic tension of one tonality where it resolves itself into a tonic of another. It hardly ever happens. Most of the time a resolution of a tension means simply going into another tension. He could have gone on for another five hours with this piece. If he needed to he could have, because it’s like a spiral. The layer gets to another layer, and it’s endless. It is very Buddhistic.

Reducing the opera to the Prelude and Liebestod was once described as the unkindest cut. Do you agree?

Ever since I do the whole opera I really very rarely do just Prelude and Liebestod because it is excruciatingly difficult to find yourself in the emotional, also physical state in the Liebestod without having lived the intervening hours that you live through. I don’t specifically avoid it but let’s say I don’t solicit the opportunity. But it allowed for this music to become known, to become loved, for people to become obsessed and fascinated by it, and you know, in a way it is so important that all of us are introduced to specific composers in the right way, because if the introduction is not successful it turns you off and then you don’t want to know about it.

Imagine that people who were coming into sonic contact with this – there were no recordings, there was no radio, there was no media, there was nothing – so how did they experience it? At home playing from their piano score which most people of middle class, bourgeoisie and aristocracy were able to do – and then being fascinated by that and then hearing it in occasional performance. And you can all imagine what it must have done to them, coming in contact with something unlike anything else they have ever experienced. So they say, "Wow, if this is like that, let’s see what the whole thing is."

And then they have to wait for a lifetime to experience the whole thing because it was nearly unperformable at the time. I mean, imagine that when he composed it he was hoping to write a very accessible kind of easily performable piece that any opera house could do because that would get him out of poverty. And it was only when he finished and started looking at it he realised he had created a monster.

The danger is in trivialising the meaning of music and words can do it like nothing else

There is plainly a different experience for the audience in the concert hall rather than in the opera house. What for you as a conductor is lost?

It depends on the production. If it’s a great production of course a concert performance will be missing what Wagner himself has conceived which is Gesamtkunstwerk where several different art forms are blended into one. Of course if you only have the music you have only part of the Gesamtkunstwerk. And if it’s a production that I don’t want to see I’m happy to do music. Fortunately it doesn’t need to be either/or. The only either/or is again if it is a great performance. If it is not a good one then it shouldn’t be there.

Why does the Tristan chord have its own name?

The danger is in trivialising the meaning of music and words can do it like nothing else, make it sound banal. Maybe because in that chord there is the highest degree of concentration possible of longing, desire, impending tragedy, where at once there can be no happy end and yet the end that eventually will be is the only one that can bring fulfilment because this is the kind of end that they are seeking - because it is unresolved, because in a way it’s completely existential and I think every one of us, every nervous system, can identify with it as such.

How do you prepare mentally and physically to conduct Tristan?

I will be very quiet. I will avoid anything that will disturb my connection to music, because you know this thing has an amazing ability to invade your whole being but not in a disagreeable way at all. When you actually play this music or conduct this music, you find yourself in a place where you want to live. So it doesn’t leave you when you finish. And it’s not away before you start. The important thing is that nothing is allowed to invade it and disturb it for you.

It doesn’t mean that I’m not speaking to anybody or I’m not eating or I’m suicidal and ready to jump from the third floor window. It has nothing to do with it. I just like to be where I am and I like to stay and everything is towards that. So that at the moment when it finally begins and you share it with other people, you are at the very peak of your mental and physical capacity to let it flow. It has to be exactly what the athletes are trying to achieve, and occasionally manage to do that.

And afterwards?

And afterwards in a way this is exactly where the spirit leaves the body. It’s only spirit that remains. It’s very beautiful. It’s not the question of any kind of exhaustion. It’s very interesting because I thought many times, not only in conjunction with Tristan but Lohengrin. I notice something interesting. That kind of stuff makes you feel a better person while you’re with it, so if it does why leave it?

How do you find the experience of conducting at the Proms?

Unlike anything. It’s extraordinarily uplifting. The audience wills you into a performance in a way when you are in a soccer World Cup final in Maracanã in Sao Paolo and you see 80,000 people willing you to absolutely surpass anything you’ve ever done before. It does something to you. And in that sense the ambience of Albert Hall in the Proms is the most unique experience in classical music on this planet.

It’s not to compare, to say it’s better than Musikverein [in Vienna]. No, it isn’t. It’s just different. But the sheer majesty of it, the nobility of spirit that the place has when it’s filled with people who are there because they really want to be and stand there for five hours. You have to have good legs and even if you don’t you have to have really a desire to be there. So it’s unique. Every time I’m really deeply moved.

Jasper Rees on Twitter

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