TCHAIKOVSKY: Manfred Symphony in B Minor, Op. 58 – Gūrzenich-Orchester Köln / Dmitri Kitayenko – Oehms Classics

by | Jul 27, 2010 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

TCHAIKOVSKY: Manfred Symphony in B Minor, Op. 58 – Gūrzenich-Orchester Köln / Dmitri Kitayenko – Oehms Classics multichannel SACD OC 665 [Distr. by Naxos], 61:25 ***:

Typical of the morbidly sensitive and self-critical Tchaikovsky, when he completed the Manfred Symphony in 1885 he thought of it as one of his best symphonic works; three years later he despised the piece, branding it an “atrocity.” The detailed notes to the current recording chart this decline in Tchaikovsky’s estimation, as well as the somewhat tortured history of the symphony: In the 1860s, the Russian critic Vladimir Stasov created a symphonic program based on Lord Byron’s 1817 dramatic poem Manfred, which tells the tale of the eponymous Manfred, a practitioner of the black arts who is haunted by his incestuous relationship with his half-sister Astarte. He flees to the Swiss Alps, where he remains tormented by the memory of the departed Astarte. With the help of the mountain spirit Arimanes, he conjures up the ghost of Astarte, who prophesies Manfred’s early death. Manfred dies alone in his Alpine tower, defiant to the end in true anti-hero fashion.

Stasov cherry-picked scenes from the drama to create an effective program for musical treatment. He offered the program to Balakirev, who didn’t feel up to the task of giving it musical form; he in turn proposed the project to Berlioz, who was too old and infirm to accept the challenge.

Time passed. Enter Tchaikovsky, whose rise to fame, and especially the success of his Romeo and Juliet Fantasy (based on a program suggested by Balakirev), caused Balakirev to consider him prime candidate for the long-delayed project. Tchaikovsky balked on a couple of scores. First, he admired Schumann’s 1848 incidental music to Manfred and feared he might end up with an uninspired clone of Schumann’s work. Second, Tchaikovsky worried that the kind of program symphony Berlioz and Liszt had created would not produce an architecturally sound work in the classical symphonic tradition that he’d been trained in and had faith in.

As it turns out, Tchaikovsky’s instincts were sound; the Manfred Symphony doesn’t hold together with symphonic logic or unity of musical approach. The first movement introduces themes that portray the main characters of Byron’s drama in the manner of the first movement of Liszt’s Faust Symphony. The last movement is a sprawling tone poem that more fully delineates dramatic actions. The second movement is a pictorial scherzo that portrays the darting flight of the Alpine fairy against the backdrop of a mountain waterfall, while the slow movement is a pastorale in the manner of the slow movement from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, complete with woodwind imitations of shepherds’ pipes. In both central movements the tortured Manfred theme from the first movement returns as a leitmotiv, but it serves little purpose except to suggest that whatever the setting, Manfred remains a haunted figure, unable to find peace.

Many critics come down hardest on the last movement, however. It portrays a wild bacchanal in the mountain cave of Arimanes but introduces a lengthy fugue that’s just too academic, sapping the dionysiac spirit of the bacchanal. The appearance of Astarte is melodramatically announced by the pipe organ, and her prophecy leads without much fanfare to the final quiet chorale depicting Manfred’s death – much more hopeful sounding than in Byron’s original. The sprawling and disparate last movement is probably weakest of all, but it does have its exciting moments and beauties as well.

Given its failings, the Manfred Symphony is hard to pull off, yet a gifted and sympathetic conductor can minimize the patchiness and play up Tchaikovsky’s strengths, which are fine melodies, high drama, and dazzling orchestration. Somewhat remarkably, the Manfred Symphony has fared very well on disc. Classic interpretations by Toscanini, Markevich, Muti, and Jansons are still available. Newer offerings by Pletnev and Petrenko have their adherents as well.

I’m familiar with the Muti (EMI) and Pletnev (DG) recordings, and I have to say that except in terms of sonics, Kitayenko’s version is simply not competitive. Muti, especially, holds the work together much better, making you forget those places where the seams tend to show, and both conductors are far more exciting than Kitayenko, who favors slow tempos to the extent that the first movement nearly fails to get off the ground. He takes the marking Lento lugubre too literally, finding almost no life in a movement that the other conductors animate most successfully. Kitayenko’s interpretation comes to life only in the last movement, and by then, the battle is lost.

However, the Oehms engineers have captured Tchaikovsky’s big orchestral forces with great fidelity and a sense of presence that my benchmark recordings can’t touch. Inner detail emerges with utter clarity, and those huge tam-tam crashes are breathtakingly clean and real. So as an audiophile experience, this is certainly a treat, though it leaves something to be desired as a performance of Tchaikovsky’s often exciting but problematic work. [The melodramatic section with pipe organ is quite an audiophile experience here;  some early recordings mixed in a pipe organ recorded elsewhere which usually sounded terrible…Ed.]

– Lee Passarella

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