Interview: Semyon Bychkov on returning to Covent Garden for Lohengrin

'How was he able to understand everything about life and be able to express it through sounds the way he does in Lohengrin while being still in his mid-thirties? It absolutely escapes me.'

25 April 2009

Semyon Bychkov

Monday brings the return of a favourite classic to the Royal Opera House, as Elijah Moshinsky's production of Wagner's Lohengrin enjoys another revival. An outstanding cast has come together to perform the work, with names including Petra Lang, Kwangchul Youn, Falk Struckmann and Johan Botha coming together for this, one of Wagner's most vibrant and accessible works.

But for many, the main reason for attending will be the opportunity to hear the reading of Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov. After an auspicious debut in 2003 with Strauss' Elektra, he returned a few months later for a memorable Boris Godunov with Sir John Tomlinson and Olga Borodina, and then led a stirring account of The Queen of Spades in late 2006. Having established a strong relationship with Covent Garden, Bychkov is back to do this Lohengrin, and will return in future seasons to conduct pieces such as Don Carlo and Tannhäuser, as well as to conduct various of the London orchestras in symphonic repertoire.

So it seems that UK audiences will at last be able to experience more of the work of a conductor whose base for the last twelve years has been Cologne, where he has been in charge of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, leading them to new prominence in a wide repertoire. A year ago, Bychkov conducted them in Lohengrin, in fact, with many of the same singers, and an extraordinarily exciting recording based on the concerts has just been released on the Profil label. It's certainly whetted my appetite for Bychkov's Covent Garden performances, which are the main reason for our meeting during the final week of rehearsals.

I'm curious as to Bychkov's decision to perform the piece so many times within a short amount of time, as well as to record it.

'When I go into a project, I don't like to do it just once,' he says. 'I like to stay with it, because it grows, it develops, it takes on new life. Works that are great masterpieces stay with you for life. Lohengrin is something that's been with me in recent years, hence the recording, and we tried to organise it so that the recording would come out around the time of the London production, and with a similar cast. It's just something that allows you to develop the concept, rather than jumping from piece to piece.'

Struckmann, Lang, Young and Botha are common to both the recording and the Covent Garden revival. Does having the same singers help Bychkov's interpretation to grow? 'If you have colleagues like we have, who are on the recording and in the cast of this production, these people have been thinking about these roles for many years now. And so they themselves have a tremendous vision of it, and they want to grow in the same way that I do. They want to add new facets to their identification with the piece. Because we have the opportunity to stay together, we've developed a bond which is both artistic and human, so it's like a little family.'

In the booklet accompanying the new recording, Bychkov talks about sticking to Wagner's metronome markings. I ask him to explain his attitude towards the score. 'Let's say that the basic premise from which I start working on a piece is to try to be faithful to realising what's in the score,' he explains. 'It sounds a little bit corny, I know, and everybody could say in response that we always try to do that, which is true. But actually realising it is what the hard part is, because a lot of the time we look, but we don't see. That's why you need a lifetime spent with a piece. Since these are great masterpieces, they give you an enormous number of possibilities for interpretations. Many years after first having approached a work, suddenly I will think, why didn't I see this before? What about this relationship between two scenes? What about this transition?

'It's an endless process. You try to be faithful to it because you're dealing with the creation of someone who had a divine gift – I have no other way of explaining it. How people like Mozart, Brahms and Wagner were able to conceive what they did from nothing, how that was born in their brains, is something I have no explanation for, so it needs a divine gift. They knew infinitely well what they wanted to hear, and my challenge is to try somehow to penetrate their inner being and get under their skin as an interpreter. If I'm successful in doing that, it means I'm serving them. If I'm not successful, it means I'm going against their creation. It's like a child; these works are their children. You can't go against the parent: you have to respect the parent because you wouldn't have that child without the parent! So this is a very basic premise from which everything starts. It doesn't end there, but it has to start from that point.

'Regarding metronome indications in Lohengrin, the way they came about is quite interesting. Wagner was absent from the premiere of the opera for political reasons, because he was persona non grata. So you can imagine the composer whose monumental work is being rehearsed and about to be premiered: all he can do is sit in Switzerland and bite his nails, and try to imagine what it might sound like. It was prepared by Liszt, who was someone he admired greatly and who was one of the greatest musicians of all time. But Wagner wasn't there. So on the day of the premiere, Wagner was pacing and playing the piece in his mind, and when he heard the reports of the premiere, he realised that the timing of the performance was much longer than he had ever imagined. He thought about what had happened, and realised that it stemmed from the German tradition of recitative in which singers did more or less what they wanted in terms of tempo – they slowed it down and pulled it around.

'So in those moments where the strings just play a quiet tremolo, the conductor did not have the same chance to lead the performance, unless he could work it out in advance with the artists. Therefore, Wagner wrote a letter to Liszt in 1850 where he explained all these things, and said that he had already thought of the speed in which he wanted those lines to be sung. All they had to do was to speak the text and follow the rhythm of the speech in a lively fashion, then the tempo would be right and the character would come out.

'It was not, in fact, Wagner's first attempt to formulate tempo in this kind of way: he'd earlier written a pamphlet on Tannhäuser which he'd sent out to all the opera houses that wanted to produce the opera. It was full of directions for everyone involved in a production, and one of the things was that he told the singers to speak the text before they even sung it, because it's through speech that you discover the speed for the expression you're looking for. If you change it, the character of expression will change. There are twenty-seven different ways of saying the same thing, and maybe twenty-six of them will not be credible while one of them will be convincing: that's the one. And the music, if one just attaches the melodic aspect of it to the spoken one, and to the rhythm of the speech which is in the music anyway, then it all comes together.

Semyon Bychkov'There are very few metronome indications that Wagner sent to Liszt, just here and there, but they give you parameters. With all great music, but Wagner in particular, I find that every note is connected to the one that precedes it and the one that succeeds it. Every note has to know its time. If you shorten a note, it's like shortening somebody's life. We have no right to do that. But similarly, we have no right to prolong the note, otherwise the next note will have to wait before it comes to life. It's a tremendous challenge for all of us to have this sense of the evolution of musical discourse. Each note has to appear when it has to, and the way it has to.

'So the metronome marks are like guiding lights that send us on the road we should be on, because if you start with these parameters, everything that comes afterwards is consistent. After that, you have to find your own direction, your own conviction, your own connection, and you have to make sure that nothing is accidental. In a rather Buddhistic way, each effect has its cause and becomes the cause for the next effect. Nothing is accidental.

'Of course, you could ask, isn't there a danger that you start to sort of play your own recording? No, there is not, because the heart beats slightly differently in different situations, depending on so many things that you can't control and shouldn't even try to. And so it will always be different, no matter what. But what's important is to train yourself to realise the sets of proportions, how all the elements can express themselves together, and give room to the others to express themselves.

'And so all of that becomes a universe. We musicians are very lucky: we can be like gods. It has nothing to do with infallibility or quality; it has to do with the opportunity to determine the harmony of all the elements that exist together, even though they come into conflict. That's simply by determining the time when a note will appear, when the next one will succeed it. It's a bit like building a cathedral. If you don't observe certain rules about how various elements relate to each other, it will not stand; it will collapse. It doesn't matter what kind of interior decoration you give it, it just won't stand. So you have to be sure that the foundations are correct, that the walls are in the correct proportion to each other, that the ceiling comes up to the right point.'

I ask Bychkov to clarify the way he sees his relationship to the work, because the terms in which he describes it sound almost subservient at times.

'Subservient, no,' he says, 'because the music lives in the moment. However, you can serve without being subservient. When somebody tells you, "I want you to do this", you can follow the direction like a blind soldier, or you can follow the spirit of the order as somebody who emphatically believes in what the master wants, but then bring your own conviction and talent to do it, and it serves the master better than being subservient. It's a very fine line between being creative and using these works in order to put yourself forward – that's something I don't like, something I can't accept. These works are not to be used, they are to be served. The way I look at it, everybody is actually serving somebody, in every profession, one way or another. If you don't like the idea of serving somebody else, then I think you basically end up doing nothing! So there's nothing demeaning about it, as long as we remember who's the master. In this case, the master happens to be Mr Wagner.'

Wagner wrote Lohengrin when he was remarkably young. Is it of the quality of the later works like the Ring Cycle, Tristan and Parsifal?

'For me, that's something that's very difficult to understand, because again, it's something divine. How was he able to understand everything about life, everything about the world, and be able to express it through sounds the way he does in Lohengrin while being still in his mid-thirties? It absolutely escapes me. He's one of those very few characters in history who have mapped their whole life in front of them from the very beginning. When he was only twenty, he already knew what he was going to do. Everything was part of a wider project. The parts change, but the project is the same. And the mastery is the same. It's inexplicable. But I don't know anything in Lohengrin that doesn't belong to it. For me, it couldn't be anything other than it is, and I wouldn't wish it to be. Parsifal is already in it – not only the allusion to Parsifal, but the sequential way of composing. It's Leitmotivic, too. It's a precursor to Parsifal and the Ring; it's already there. So it is completely convincing from the beginning to the end, but how he was able to do it is completely beyond me.

I ask Bychkov about his future Covent Garden productions, including Tannhäuser but he seems troubled by the thought of taking his focus off his current score:

'Not yet. Not yet. We'll meet again,' he says. 'You really make my life very difficult! The beauty of this thing that we do is that it allows us to live in a particular world and to stay there for a while. When we want to live in that world, it's almost painful to go into another world. It always takes a little while to go from one world to the next. After that it's OK, but the initial switch is comparable to switching from one language to another. There has to be a little mental click at some point, just to start thinking 'Italian' or 'German' or 'Russian' or 'French'. It's a peculiar thing, except I can make that switch very quickly, and then I'm there. We'll meet again!'

Bychkov is one of a relatively small number of conductors who are equally at home with both Verdi and Wagner. With his Cologne orchestra he's recorded Verdi's Requiem and Wagner's Lohengrin, and both have been met with equal success. How is it that he's able to embrace both of them so easily?

'Well, first of all, I would never ever say that it was easy. None of it is meant to be easy. A lot of it requires accepting the pain of getting there. One of the greatest challenges for an interpreter of this kind of repertoire today is to find an authentic spirit of interpretation which convinces both you and those who are receiving it. We're dealing with different cultures, different traditions, different means of expression. It's not a comparison of quality; it's simply a reminder of how diverse the cultural achievement of the human civilisation is.

'So in a way, it requires an interpreter to become a chameleon. If I think in German and I think 'German', it is very different from when I think in Italian and I am being Italian. But I cannot accept the idea that Verdi will sound like Wagner and Wagner will sound like Verdi. It was acceptable a hundred years ago, because at that time there were no recordings, information travels slowly, and most musicians were confined to their own culture. So you would hear Wagner in Italy in the Italian language, done by Italian musicians who had not had the opportunity to hear Wagner done in German by the Germans, so their performance was a reflection of stheir own imagination and temperament. I once heard a very old recording of La damnation de Faust conducted by Furtwängler or one of the great German conductors. I was flabbergasted because it sounded so German and Wagnerian, and it had absolutely no life. That's because it had no connection to either its own culture or its own language. Language is the mirror of national temperament, and if one does not have a connection to the language, one also doesn't have a connection to the inflection in the expression, and therefore it's going to be faulty.

'So my obsession has been to be as credible as I humanly can be, going from one culture to another. You have to accept a lot of pain with that, because it isn't so easy. You can't do it as a tourist, and you can't do it by hearsay. You can't do it just by listening to recordings. It requires an immersion in the lifestyle of a nation in order to understand somebody's psyche.

'English people have a phenomenal tradition of theatre, and therefore an extraordinary tradition of acting. I think of Daniel Day Lewis, for instance: he's a very dear friend, and I'm fortunate to know the man and to have been able to speak with him about his profession and how he approaches the world. I always like to tell the story of the first time I met him. He came to our house in Paris with a friend of ours, and although I knew the friend was coming, I had no idea who she was coming with. I was late, and when I arrived I said hello to this man, and everybody started laughing because I didn't recognise who it was. I thought I'd never seen the man in my life, but it was Danny. I had seen My Left Foot, The Incredible Lightness of Being, The Laundrette, and several other movies of his, but I would never have imagined that it was the same man. For me, that's absolutely extraordinary. There are actors who are able to become unrecognisable going from role to role, to the point where they totally identify with the characters and become authentic. I don't see why it should be different for a musician.'

Born in Leningrad, Bychkov is conducting a programme of Rachmaninov and Shostakovich at the Proms. But to my surprise, he doesn't he feel especially close to the music of his homeland. 'I feel very close to it, but not 'particularly'. From the very beginning of my musical life, I was concerned with the idea of being able to transcend borders. I think an artist has many missions, and one of them is to destroy borders, not create them. So of course I have a complete identification with the music of Shostakovich: it's only natural, I lived it, I know the streets, I know what's behind the notes. Do I feel it stronger and keener and closer than I would identify with Brahms or Bach or Mahler or Verdi or Wagner? No. There is always a mental switch. Of course when I'm with Shostakovich, I'm home. But when I'm with Brahms, I'm home too, once I've made the switch. So Brahms does not end up sounding like Shostakovich, Mozart does not sound like Wagner.'

Semyon BychkovHe's also conducting the UK premiere of Detlev Glanert's Shoreless River at the Proms. Perhaps unfairly, Bychkov is not associated with new works. Is contemporary music important to him, or does he prefer to do the great pieces of the past? 'Let's see: Henri Dutilleux, Luciano Berio, Gubaidulina, Magnus Lindberg. The answer is in the facts, namely that I'm interested in all music, of all times. From Bach to the music written now. The only criterion for me is whether the music carries a permanent, lasting value. I want to see how what was important then can be important to me now. Of course, with new music I cannot know. But when I see the ambition and desire from a composer, and a certain track record, that gives me a starting point.

'You asked whether I'm interested in the old masterpieces. But I'm interested just in masterpieces: I don't see how a symphony by Berio is a smaller masterpiece than anything else that I know. I don't have the right to judge quality. Of course, there's an evolution between Verdi as a young man and what Verdi became when he wrote Falstafff, and most people have that kind of evolution. But he wrote Macbeth when he was 34, and how bad is it? So I don't think those kinds of characterisations or judgements do anything: they speak more about us than they do about them.'

One recent article on Bychkov claimed that he deals more with masterpieces than rarities, but again it's something he refutes vehemently. 'I don't think I ever said that, because it's got nothing to do with reality. I'll give you an example. Is Sir William Walton's First Symphony a masterpiece or a rarity? Clearly, it's a rarity. And I'm conducting it, initially in October in Cologne with my own orchestra, and then a year later I'm coming back with the same piece in several key places. Why would I do it if I didn't believe that it's a masterpiece? It's very funny: a journalist asked me only a week ago why I was doing this piece in Cologne, since it's not known in Germany, and I answered that that's a good enough reason to do it! It's a tremendous work, so the fact that people don't know it and it's rarely done in Germany is even more of a reason to do it. So it's too simplistic to say that I prefer masterpieces to rarities.'

Why has his relationship with the SDR been so successful? It's no accident.

'It's because we both wanted the same thing. We wanted something that would be convincing; we wanted to make an impact; and we wanted quality. We still do. Quality is not negotiable, and the most powerful thing I can every say to my orchestra, even twelve years on, is "It's not good enough." And I don't say it in an unkind or accusatory way, because it's unnecessary. I simply do it as a matter of observation, and when I say it, I mean that it's not good enough from us. I say that we're not good enough. You should see their faces, how mad they get: their jaws tighten, and they get so pissed off, because they can hear it themselves. And when they don't, then they're angry because it means they can be better without knowing it, which also drives them crazy. They're proud, and after twelve years it hasn't changed.

'When you all want the same thing, everything can be worked out. Plus, we're very lucky: we have a great hall, a great public. There are tremendous opportunities for recordings, because we're a broadcasting company and everything is built in, including the team of technicians who have the same artistic vision. And there's such a thing as human chemistry, which means that somehow everything fits together.'

But he's not renewing his contract. 'I announced a year ago that I would stop at the end of next season, which will be thirteen years. I think that one always has to sense the moment when it is time to change. That moment should never come too late. People should never have the feeling that the relationship has run its course, that things have become a little bit too comfortable.'

So what now? 'For the first time in my artistic life, which has been more than thirty-five years, I'm going to be free. So I don't know what's going to happen. I've always been responsible for an institution!'

No plans at all? 'Well, of course I'll be conducting. I have plenty of projects in my diary, some really fantastic things, and I have more time to give to people I've always had to refuse in the past because I didn't have the time. It's fascinating: I don't know if I'm going to be like this for the rest of my life, and I don't actually want to know. I know that I'm doing a new Die Frau ohne Schatten at La Scala, I know I'm doing a new Otello in Vienna. Those things are like beautiful lights in the future, so why do I need to know the rest?'

Bychkov is looking forward to more appearances at the Royal Opera House. 'I'm coming back in a few months' time for Don Carlo and I have projects after that, so it's what I would call a very stimulating relationship. And believe me, if I were not feeling well with the people here, do you think I would come back? No!'

More orchestral work in London is also on the cards, after a period in which he didn't do all that much symphonic repertoire here. 'It's been a long pause, but it's now over. I'm already coming back. I did this concert in January with the kids of the National Youth Orchestra, which was just a joy,' he says with a warmth and gleam in his voice. 'That will be repeated a year later. I'm coming back with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe at the end of May to the Festival Hall, then I'm doing the LSO and BBC next season.'

Bychkov was blessed with a musical background. 'There was always music in the house,' he explains. 'There was no point at which I suddenly became aware of it. I do know that when I was five years old, my mother took me to a piano teacher and wanted to see if I had a musical gift, and they discovered that I had perfect pitch and an instinctive sense of rhythm. Soon after that I played in public and everything went from there. I wanted to conduct already when I was nine years old, because the boys' choir I was singing in had a conductor who was my first prototype.'

He agrees that it helps him to be able to play the piano as well as to conduct. 'It helps because the piano allows you to organise many voices at the same time – as many as your fingers will allow you to. It's the same when you conduct, except that you have more voices and more lines. So the piano allows you to engage your brain with the texture of the music; every element has to know its place.'

I ask about his legacy, but it seems that it's not something Bychkov is interested in at the moment. 'I'm much too young to have thought about it. I try to think more of what I should remember, rather than what somebody should remember of me: "History is either what we remember, or want to, but can't forget."'

By Dominic McHugh

Photos: Semyon Bychkov; Photo credits: Sheila Rock.


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