Semyon Bychkov leans forward, thoughtfully stirring his Bloody Mary. When he speaks his voice cuts through the background noise of a Manhattan restaurant on a busy Friday night. “For Russians, Tchaikovsky is the god that Verdi is for the Italians,” he declares.

“Why is it that an Italian will burst into tears at the name of Verdi? And why will a Russian’s eyes get moist the moment they hear a Tchaikovsky tune? Their psyches vibrate when they hear these particular sounds, no one can ever explain that. It’s the identification of a people with an artist who somehow touches their inner being.”

Bychkov, one of today’s leading and most solicitous of conductors, is taking an evening off from concerts with the New York Philharmonic to talk about his soon-to-be-released seven-disc Decca box of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies, Piano Concertos and Overtures recorded over several years with the Czech Philharmonic, of which he is now Music Director and Chief Conductor. But Tchaikovsky has been a personal hero since his first encounter with the composer’s music as a 12-year-old growing up in a tiny communal apartment – “that means common kitchen, common bathroom, common toilet,”...

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