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TCHAIKOVSKY: Manfred Symphony – Czech Philharmonic/ Semyon Bychkov – Decca

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony in B Minor after Byron’s “Manfred,” Op. 58 – Czech Philharmonic/ Semyon Bychkov – Decca 483 2320, 59:19 (8/25/17) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Tchaikovsky epic symphonic-poem receives a dedicated performance in this ongoing project by Semyon Bychkov.

Tchaikovsky, much like Berlioz, found a poetic, kindred spirit in the work of George Gordon, Lord Byron, turning in late 1885—at the strong suggestion of Balakirev—to the poet’s gloomy masterpiece, “Manfred” (1817), that celebrates Romantic Agony in a series of episodes testifying to the protagonist’s alienation due to some un-named “original sin.” Like Berlioz, Tchaikovsky conceived his symphony as a through-composed leitmotif or idée fixe that would turn upon itself, cyclically, as the eponymous hero undergoes adventures that alter his melodic contour and harmonic syntax. Manfred longs for Astarte, an image of “the Eternal Feminine” that no less inhabits the world of Goethe and his Faust or Dante and his Beatrice. A morally ambiguous figure, Astarte inspires and torments Manfred, and she projects a romantic and demonic influence, appearing in ardent reality and later, in a wistful memory.

A relatively massive score, Manfred rarely comes to the concert stage for performance: this reviewer recalls only one such experience, granted by conductor Louis Lane with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Bychkov—like Markevitch and Rachlin before him—remains a believer, discarding Leonard Bernstein’s outright dismissal of the music, and Toscanini’s compromised appreciation, which cut some 100 measures from the score. In his accompanying notes, Bychkov claims the Czech Philharmonic players had not known this symphony prior to the current Tchaikovsky project with him. He notes that “something wonderful happened. . .They began to play it with real love.”

The result gratifies, given the fine level of execution of the main theme of Manfred’s personal anguish, in f-sharp minor that will eventually modulate into the major mode, a la Franz Liszt. The second movement scherzo, Vivace con spirito, offers a program in which Manfred confronts an Alpine fairy in a sunrise and rainbow, an affirmation of Nature’s bounty in high violins and a melody of consequence. The third movement pastoral in A and G Major, Andante con moto, permits a sense of repose and relaxation in rustic enchantment, although the titular character rejects such consolation. The last movement, Allegro con fuoco presents a bacchanal similar to the last movement of the Berlioz Harold in Italy, a movement often criticized for its fugal section’s being regarded as extraneous, academic, in the midst of an emotional frenzy. In the symphony’s final moments, Tchakovsky adds the organ as a moment of Manfred’s spiritual apotheosis, Astarte’s having offered him redemption.

The sound production for this disc (rec. 24-27 April 2017) in Dvorak Hall, Prague, by Stephan Reh captures the exquisite bass tones and high trumpet work vividly, although I feel that the hour might have been shared by one more work, perhaps the Hamlet Fantasy. But as a self-enclosed entity, Manfred makes its dramatic effect with a dedicated ensemble who have come to admire this composer.

—Gary Lemco

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