Mark Obert-Thorn restores the World Premiere recording of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony.
Fabien Sevitzky – Indianapolis Symphony Vol. 1 = TCHAIKOVSKY: Manfred Sym. in b minor, Op. 58; Waltz from Eugene Onegin, Op. 24; GLINKA: Russlan and Ludmilla Ov.; RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Dubinushka, Op. 62; LIADOV: Baba Yaga, Op. 56 – Indianapolis Sym. Orch./ Fabien Sevitzky – Pristine Audio PASC 479, 79:00 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
The restoration of the Fabien Sevitzky (nee Koussevitzky) reading of the Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony (27-28 January 1942) at the Mural Theatre, Indianapolis by audio engineer and annotator Mark Obert-Thorn is not the first CD incarnation of this performance: it had been issued on the Historic-Recordings.co.uk label in 2009 (HRCD 00017) in a transfer by Damien Rogan. Under that aegis, the gloomy, dramatic symphony inspired by Lord Byron’s 1816 epic poem stands alone; here, Obert-Thorn adds – in the first two selections from 1941 – the earliest of the conductor’s sessions at RCA Victor. Sevitzky (1891-1967) – nephew of his more illustrious uncle Serge Koussevitzky – had studied both with Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov in St. Petersburg, so he had imbibed the Russian style naturally. An avid collector of neckwear, Sevitzky claimed to possess the second largest assortment of neckties, after that of the actor Adolf Menjou. The boast came as part of the Indianapolis Orchestra’s appearance at Cornell University, 2 December 1940.
The Manfred Symphony (1886) evolved from the efforts of Mily Balakirev to convince Tchaikovsky that the latter could write a programmatic work after Byron without having become overwhelmed by the Berlioz influence. Tchaikovsky balked a number of times, but he finally conceded to his own imagination, which had been thwarted for two years by his own admiration of the Schumann treatment of the poem as an incidental melodrama. Typically, Tchaikovsky utilizes a series of leitmotifs to follow the course of his protagonist, who suffers an acute form of Romantic Agony. Manfred pines for his lost beloved Astarte, and the various fits of passion enjoy throes worthy of Poe as well as Byron.
Given the modern popularity of the score among such conductors as Markevitch, Maazel, Rachlin, and Louis Lane, some of Sevitzky’s tempos seem unconventional. Leonard Bernstein loathed the music, calling it “trash.” Toscanini in 1949 performed the work, even extolling its form – and then cut well over 100 bars from the last movement. The outer movements from Sevitzky unfold quite sympathetically, and the Indianapolis string tone can be elegant. The second movement Vivace con spirito – Manfred’s meeting with an Alpine fairy – moves from b minor to D Major, and its secondary theme must be counted among Tchaikovsky’s most lovely tunes, soon in counterpoint with the “Manfred” motif. The second movement received the attention of Albert Coates who, unfortunately, recorded no more of the work. Sevitzky slows down the romantic theme considerably, while the outer sections – somewhat in the “flighty” style of Mendelssohn – move briskly.
Sevitzky’s Andante con moto third movement – a G Major siciliana much in the bucolic, Berlioz style – moves at a dangerously slow pace, threatening at moments to lose the melodic thread. Still, the winds and strings preserve a redolent, spatial sensibility, quite effective. The last movement means to convey subterranean bacchantes in the presence of Astarte’s shade, and we soon hear Sevitzky’s substitution of a side drum for the composer’s designated tambourine. The fugal writing cedes more to German academics than to musically dramatic logic. The cymbal crashes prove jarring, as required. The Manichean progression from dark to light, b minor to B Major, ends with an exalted chorale, Manfred’s transfiguration. For a first complete rendition of this ambitious and ungainly score, the Sevitzky holds up well.
The other Russian items reveal an energetic, fiery personality before the music. The Glinka Russlan and Ludmilla Overture (8 January 1941) bursts forth furiously, well in the manner of Yevgeny Mravinsky, with a vibrato-rich string tone. The 1905 political-campaign song Dubinishka (7 January 1941) savors the marcato approach, militant and somber. The Indianapolis brass shines here, as well it should. The Op. 56 symphonic character-piece Baba-Yaga by Liadov revives the folk-lore witch-figure, more recently embodied in Keanu Reeves’ film John Wick. The little demon snarls, hops and skips with adequate malevolence in a resonant RCA record from 9 February 1945. Tchaikovsky’s Waltz from Eugene Onegin first impressed me when Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic played it. Then, I heard the Waltz with the vocal accompaniment in the opera, led by Mitropoulos. Here (19 March 1946), Sevitzky keeps the lithe, somewhat breathless, momentum primary, a real ballet tour de force in fine sound.
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