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‘The music of Brahms is always intimate, no matter how loudly it’s talking,’ says Semyon Bychkov. ‘For me, this is the great paradox: the monumentality of Brahms is in its intimacy.

There is an interesting letter that he wrote in 1886 to his friend, the surgeon Theodor Billroth, who was suffering from deep sadness. He says: ‘It always seems to me rather melancholy when you write of the feeling of being lonely. I have a thorough understanding of that, and hope that you are going to be careful. For I am that, too. For a long time, or for all time, I have been a somewhat lonely individual, and still am.’ This tells you everything about the music.

Brahms had a vast library collection of early music. At a time when most people ignored Bach, Schütz, Palestrina, he was always conducting their music in Vienna, which the public couldn’t understand: ‘Why is he bothering with this boring stuff?’ He was attacked, he was criticised, but he couldn’t care less. And of course, he assimilated this knowledge of contrapuntal forms into his own music. The passacaglia of the Fourth Symphony is one of the most colossal examples.

When conducting you have to make decisions all the time. Minute technical matters become big questions – how much weight and inflection to give a semiquaver. But for an interpreter, the most difficult question in Brahms is balancing the classical discipline and the romantic spirit. He was able to integrate everything that there is to life – action and reaction, objective and subjective – juxtaposing conflict and struggle with harmony and resolution. And that is the hardest thing for anyone to achieve, musician or non-musician.’

Listen to Semyon Bychkov conduct Brahms’s Four Symphonies with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln:

“A composer treated too fickly by musical fashion, Brahms is here accorded due respect and affection by the brilliant Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov and his superb WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne. After much-praised recordings of Strauss, Mahler and Shostakovich (in whose Leningrad symphony they were heard at the Festival Hall last week), Bychkov’s masterful players bring all their customary polish and panache to these four great works, with Bychkov at his most magisterial in the stately first and thunderous third. Brahmsians will find it hard to find a more resonant collection in the catalogue.”
[WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln / Avie – Brahms The Four Symphonies]
The Observer, February 2005

“The playing is of technically impeccable standard, affording Bychkov’s wide tonal palette complete clarity across all four symphonies. With beautifully parsed phrases and perfectly focused sonority in every dynamic, Bychkov’s cycle is the most persuasive since that of Karl Böhm.”
[WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln / Avie – Brahms The Four Symphonies]
The Independent on Sunday, December 2004