Semyon Bychkov turns 70 this year, but he first fell in love with the music of Gustav Mahler as a schoolboy back in Leningrad. His first encounter – heard while skipping school and hiding out behind a stage – is a tale in itself. Now, for the first time, he’s recording a complete cycle of the symphonies with the Czech Philharmonic. Clive Pagetsat down for coffee and a chat with the Soviet-born conductor at a Covent Garden café to learn all about that seminal first experience, what so fascinates Bychkov about Mahler, and the ideas that make his cycle-opening recording of the Fourth Symphony so special.

Semyon Bychkov

I read about the young Semyon Bychkov hiding out and and hearing what turned out to be Mahler’s Third Symphony. How old were you, and where did it happen?

I would say probably 12. I was going to school. Imagine, it’s right next to the Winter Palace. You have the Glinka School, and there is a courtyard, and there is a concert hall called the Glinka Capella from, I guess, the 18th-century. It’s beyond description, the beauty and the acoustics. The Saint Petersburg...