Richard Bratby

Needed a shot of Stolichnaya: The Tchaikovsky Project reviewed

Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic delivers epic grandeur rather than jangling nerves

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Grade: B+

I’m not sure about ‘Projects’. Aren’t those what ageing rockers produce, in a haze of sedatives, when their ego finally outgrows their talent? In classical music, there’s something unseemly about the idea of Maestro X condescending to bestow their attention upon music that is — or should be — bigger than they’ll ever be. Still, the conductor here is the Russian-born Semyon Bychkov, unambiguously one of the good guys, who, after decades spent paying his dues, has recently hit the sweet spot where every note speaks, every gesture ignites, and — crucially — critics actually notice. This Tchaikovsky box celebrates his relationship with the Czech Philharmonic, an orchestra which, so the thinking goes, combines Slav instincts with western polish, just like Tchaikovsky himself.

Well, maybe. The Czech Phil is famous for the mellowness of its sound, and there’s some gorgeous playing here. Is that enough, though, in music as raw and as uninhibited as this? Come on — the Czechs were never going to scream open the skies, like Yevgeny Mravinsky’s Soviet-era Leningrad Philharmonic, or commit to the hallucinatory, borderline-hysterical extremes of current cult favourite Teodor Currentzis. Except in the three piano concertos, where the soloist Kirill Gerstein ups the ante, Bychkov delivers epic grandeur rather than jangling nerves; the folk-inspired early symphonies, in particular, could have done with a shot of Stolichnaya. But then you reach the Byron-inspired fever dream of Manfred and suddenly it’s game on: a vast, glowering emotional apocalypse, painted in lurid oils and seething with drama. I recommend diving straight in.