Conductor Evgeny Svetlanov = BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 3; HAYDN: Symphony in G Major “Military”; TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony in B Minor, “Manfred” – Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Svetlanov – Testament

by | Jun 16, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Conductor Evgeny Svetlanov = BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a; HAYDN: Symphony No. 100 in G Major “Military”; TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony in B Minor, Op. 58 “Manfred” – Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Evgeny Svetlanov – Testament SBT2 1481 (2 CDs), 37:02, 47:17 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The concert at the Philharmonie, Berlin, 4 March 1989 marks the sole appearance of Russian maestro Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002) with the Berlin Philharmonic, an ensemble Svetlanov specifically wished to lead before he would accept any other invitations to lead German orchestras. Svetlanov was equally gratified to perform the least appreciated of the Tchaikovsky symphonic oeuvre, his 1886 Manfred Symphony, after the Byron poem of an alienated hero who suffers Romantic malaise from some nameless crime for which he atones as an eternal wanderer. Structured as a program symphony in four tableaux, the music follows the example of the Berlioz Harold in Italie Symphony, replete with an idée fixe and an orgiastic final movement that Svetlanov abridged to conclude with measures from the opening movement to form a dramatic circle.

Beethoven’s Overture in C Major (1806) for his two-act revision of Fidelio constitutes a minor program work of its own, although only Florestan’s Act II aria and the fanfares from off-stage that signal the arrival of the Minister of Justice directly quote the opera proper. Long a staple of every major conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, the orchestra under Svetlanov packs plenty of girth, especially since its comprehensive emotional breadth virtually makes the succeeding theatrical drama superfluous.  Svetlanov moves the music along literally and broadly, without overdo fuss or mannerism, insisting only upon the clearest lines as the progressive lines emerge and interact. The full power of the orchestra and Beethoven’s plain call for human liberation unleashes at last in grand form, with French horns and woodwinds in bold colors, the final page a testament to the sheer momentum that the idea of deliverance provides to all peoples.

Another moment of grand leisure emanates from the Haydn 1794 Symphony No. 100 in G Major, certainly among the staples that Karajan, Bohm, and Jochum often rendered with the Berlin Philharmonic.  The music’s nickname “Military” refers to the composer’s addition of percussion instruments in the second and fourth movements to echo the menacing advent of the Napoleonic Wars that would soon consume Europe. The opening Adagio – Allegro movement plays with a spontaneity and attractive gait that would easily certify Svetlanov as a past master of the Classical style.  We can sense the conductor’s relishing the inventive development of motifs, and the clarity of orchestral response attests to the orchestra’s quick fondness for this visiting conductor. We do miss the lack of a repeat in the exposition to give more substance to this ingenious movement. The janissary elements of the Allegretto movement emerge with flair and easy finesse. Svetlanov takes Haydn too literally with his Finale: Presto, which becomes a toccata for the BPO choirs, specially the strings and winds, here on overdrive. The brief moment of respite soon yields to the manic impulse once more, turning Haydn into a multi-colored mix whose janissary motives have becomes less militaristic than wild references to the Eastern sensibility Mozart had introduced in his Abduction from the Seraglio.

It was Leonard Bernstein who made an “ultimate” pronouncement about Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony: “Manfred is trash!” While Svetlanov does not entirely concur, he may well have harbored some deep reservations about performing the full score for the German audience.  The heavily edited performance Svetlanov delivers must be counted, ironically, an unqualified success: legend has it that the Berlin audience waited until Svetlanov returned to the stage already in his street attire and then gave him yet more unbridled acclaim. Considering Svetlanov’s inclusion of the full score in his Anthology of Russian Music for Soviet inscription, it remains cryptic that he should adopt an almost Toscanini-like scalpel to the score, excising the fugue from the last movement and adding gongs to conclude the first, which repeat at the coda of the finale! Many fine moments stand out, including the gripping “fate” motif of Manfred’s motto, the lovely oboe of the second movement, the sheer melodic continuity of the ‘Alpine Fairy’ section of the Scherzo.  Svetlanov once more displays his total comfort in maniacally fast tempos, with the Finale (Allegro con fuoco) now reduced to something like half its original size. The organ part Svetlanov has eliminated, dispelling Tchaikovsky’s musical attempt to establish an apotheosis of spirit for the agonized hero. But that the reading has emotional impact and richly nuanced sympathy cannot be denied. As a musical curio and a document for devoted Svetlanov fans, this set will remain indispensable.

—Gary Lemco

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