Silvestri in Philadelphia = TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony in B Minor after Byron’s Manfred, Op. 58; BRITTEN: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (after Purcell), Op. 34 – Philadelphia Orchestra/ Constantin Silvestri – Pristine Audio PASC 490, 74:37 [] ****:

The gifted Romanian Silvestri makes colors in his debut with the great color-ensemble, Philadelphia Orchestra.

Romanian conductor Constantin Silvestri (1913-1969) made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra 25 November 1961 for a concert that included one of his own compositions, Prelude and Fugue, which may be accessed through Pristine as a download. What we do possess on this disc – which had slipped past me until Andrew Rose kindly designated me a copy – are two scores that testify to Silvestri’s strong suit. In my interview with Silvestri’s talented pupil Sergiu Commissiona in Atlanta, I asked Sergiu to name Silvestri’s most enduring legacy as a musical pedagogue, and without hesitation, he quipped, “A great and immediate capacity for making colors.”

Tchaikovsky’s 1885 Manfred Symphony, much of which the composer—and Leonard Bernstein—detested, resulted from a desire by Mily Balakirev to see Lord Byron’s 1817 poem—via a program devised by Stasov—converted into music, especially since Hector Berlioz had toured Russia 1867-68, leading his own works, among which had been Harold in Italy for viola and orchestra, likewise based on a Byron poem. The idea of an idée fixe—essential to the Berlioz ethos—appealed to both Balakirev and Tchaikovsky, especially since the poem’s theme of unnamed sin and consequent Romantic Agony, the sense of an “eternal wanderer,” a “Flying Dutchman,” corresponds to the composer’s own sense of alienation.

The opening movement, Lento lugubre, sets Manfred in the Alps, and we can well superimpose the image of Ronald Colman’s Robert Conway in Lost Horizon, wandering among the vast Himalayas, groping for Shangri-La. The Scherzo: Vivace con spirito, relieves some of the chromatic gloom, since Astarte, Manfred’s half-sister, offers him consolation in Nature via a rainbow from a waterfall spray, and one of Tchaikovsky’s more inspired melodies. The third movement means to be a Pastorale: Andante con moto, in which Manfred communicates with alpine hunters. In two sections, it seems to correspond to the long “Scene in the Country” from the Berlioz Fantastic Symphony. The last movement provides the Philadelphia Orchestra a subterranean bacchanal, akin to the Berlioz Harold or his hell-ride in Op. 14, in which demonic forces try to seduce Manfred, who dies and ascends—unlike the fate proclaimed by Byron – in a blaze of organ and orchestra in C Major.  The opportunities for romantic and dramatic self-indulgence find Silvestri and the Philadelphia Orchestra in supreme form, and “program” or not, the experience has proved the conductor a master of his idiom.

The best-known work of Benjamin Britten, his 1945 “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” came about as a commission for an educational documentary to be called Instruments of the Orchestra, to be directed by film composer and conductor Muir Matheson. Britten selected a Rondeau from Henry Purcell’s suite for Abdelazer and set 13 variations and fugue—thus, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell—as a means of highlighting the full orchestra and subsequently, each of its instrumental choirs, progressing from the highest registers to the lowest. Given the repute of the Philadelphia Orchestra and its esteemed “first chairs,” the Britten works effectively well, and Silvestri merely has to gesture to evince the most resonant series of colors. Several of the variants shimmer, courtesy of piccolo, harp and strings, and sparkling brass and battery.

—Gary Lemco