Prom 69: Elena Stikhina’s auspicious UK debut in a dazzling Czech Philharmonic concert

For a soprano who has already sung Br¸nnhilde (in Siegfried) and
is about to take on Norma, there were many assumptions to make about the
kind of voice Stikhina might have; none were actually founded in fact.
Everything about this performance suggested a thorough grounding in the
role’s youthfulness, innocence, and romantic instincts. It was almost
unbearable to hear Tatyana’s soul being displayed with such depth; it was
if every novel, every chapter and paragraph of a book ever written were
being narrated by Stikhina with heartrending insight. What was so unusual
about this Letter Scene wasn’t just the careful attention to detail (and
the impeccable Russian), it was that you felt she was writing the letter as
it happened. Less the vast monologue it often is, it was a gripping and
believable performance of time and place which was of the moment.

The voice itself is extraordinarily beautiful and rather wide in what it
can do. It has the creaminess of Janowitz yet that rather mezzo-like,
shadowy appeal of Ludwig; in a sense it’s febrile, like a molten furnace
embracing dark embers from the middle of the chest, right up to a
rock-solid spiralling high register that is crystalline. The vibrato is
controlled with unwavering precision. Her stage presence is such that she
lives the role of Tatyana – and I imagine everything else she sings. She
completely charmed a capacity audience, just as she managed to persuade
Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic to follow every instinct of a
performance that was as sublime as it was utterly incomparable.

The concert had opened with very familiar Czech fare – Smetana. The
Overture, and Three Dances to The Bartered Bride fizzed with that
unique blend of infectiousness and rustic brilliance which only a Czech
orchestra can muster. That reedy woodwind sound, the rather bright brass is
never a surprise from this orchestra; what did prove a revelation was the
astonishing richness of the strings, particularly a cello section which
really left me wondering if there is a finer one anywhere in the world.

One can imagine the work after the interval – Shostakovich’s searing Eighth
Symphony – with its distinctive Soviet implications (even though it is
markedly differently in tone from the Seventh) – being a touch unsettling
for a Czech orchestra. The performance we heard actually suggested it might
have been because I have rarely heard one in which the angst, tragedy and
eruptions of sound were so visceral. This is indeed a symphony which is
marked out by climaxes of terrifying power, and the Czech Philharmonic did
not hold back in the slightest. Hard sticks on the timpani were mighty, and
scarcely refrained from making an impact which was monumental. Yet, could
one have asked for a more bittersweet, more serene cor anglais solo played
over lamenting tremolo strings than the mercurial one we heard here? I very
much doubt it. But when one heard those grinding climaxes against clarinet
and flute duets the dichotomy of a symphony which is always in conflict
with itself simply put into focus an orchestra which has an exceptional
ability to display itself as a body of craftsmen rather than

Semyon Bychkov tends towards a more aggressive slant in Shostakovich – a
Tenth with the Orchestre de Paris in the 1990s at the Proms was a vividly
wild performance – and he coaxed some very grim playing from his Czech
players in the central movements of this Eighth. There were great slabs of
darkness from the strings, a toccata in the Allegro non troppo
that stuttered and grinded like machinery in a great industrial iron
foundry; trumpets blazed through the orchestra like gun fire. Those
climaxes which seemed to come from nowhere in this symphony were horrific
in their power and then just collapsed; in the final movement you felt the
weight of the bows against cellos and basses would break their strings.

This was a performance of such magnitude, a gripping brilliance and played
with devastating power, that Bychkov was able to hold off applause for a
significant amount of time. It really was that exhausting for conductor,
orchestra and audience. But this had been an exceptional Prom in every way.
Without a doubt the highlight of this year’s season for me.

Marc Bridle

Elena Stikhina (soprano), Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Czech Philharmonic.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Tuesday 10th September 2019.

product_title=Prom 69: Czech Philharmonic conducted by Semyon Bychkov
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id=Above: Elena Stikhina (soprano)

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou