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Verdi has always been close to my heart,’ says Semyon Bychkov. ‘I grew up in Leningrad, where there are three opera houses, including the least-known one that is part of the Conservatory. All three had La Traviata in their repertoire, and in those years there was hardly a week when I didn’t go to hear La Traviata, which gives you an idea of how deep my connection to this composer’s music goes.

I am very happy to be returning to Verdi now: Don CarloOtello and the Requiem. It’s a new exploration of the relationship that started all those years ago, but with the benefit of my Italian experience. Just living there gives you a very different outlook on his music.

Verdi was a product of the Italian musical tradition that stretches back to madrigals. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert were foreigners to him; it doesn’t mean that he valued them less, but they were not part of the air he breathed. He grew up hearing village bands in the streets. Naturally, he went far beyond such music, but this is the climate in which he was born. At the time when no one could escape being subjugated by Wagner, Verdi was one of the very few strong enough to remain independent, telling the younger generation of composers in his homeland that to be true to themselves they must not aspire to be anything but Italian.

One thing that sets Verdi apart is that he never put himself above the concerns of his countrymen; in fact, he was eventually elected as a deputy of parliament. He was in touch with the most progressive political leaders in Italy. This, for me, is the true reason why Verdi was honoured in his lifetime and loved by the Italian people. Most of them never heard his music. There was no radio, no television, no recordings, so they had no opportunity, unless they lived where the operas were performed and could afford a ticket. Yet people identified with Verdi, because they recognised that this man really cared about them and the country – and also happened to be a great artist.

We can see interesting parallels throughout history, with musicians who were able to transcend just being musicians. For example, when Slava Rostropovich died, there was an outpouring of love throughout the whole of Russia that is hard to compare to anybody else. It wasn’t just because he was an amazing artist, but because he had the courage to make a stand at a time when it was dangerous for him to do so. He lost everything he had, but he was never destroyed. In fact it made him what he was.

“We should never forget that Verdi was not only a great composer. He was also his country’s true civic conscience.’

Listen to Semyon Bychkov conduct Verdi Requiem with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln:

“The heat generated by this scorching revival of Verdi’s Don Carlo had little to do with burning heretics or indeed any aspect of Nicholas Hytner’s lucid if rather passive staging, but rather the conducting of Semyon Bychkov whose drive and patience ensured that both the urgency and weight of history defining this great score were magnificently served. Bychkov’s triumph was fully to reconcile the sweep and intimacy of Don Carlo. Fine detailing was as significant as grand gesturing in Bychkov’s scheme of things. Verdi’s simplest colourings, like the bare unison horns carrying us into the vaults of the San Yuste Monastery, were rich in atmosphere and subtext, the musical embodiment of lines like ’the sorrows of the world follow us into the cloister’. At the other extreme, Bychkov brought electrifying immediacy to key climacterics in the drama. In the scene where Rodrigo takes on the King, Philip II, the fury of his accusation that Philip will rule over ’the peace of the grave’ unleashes an awesome welter of sound from the depths of Verdi’s orchestra. In Bychkov’s hands it was as if a huge fissure had opened up in the fabric of the piece. Dramatically speaking, it had, of course. ”
[Royal Opera, Covent Garden – Verdi Don Carlo]
The Independent, September 2009