TCHAIKOVSKY: “Manfred” Symphony in B Minor, Op. 58 – Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Fabien Sevitzky
Historic Recordings HRCD 00017, 59:55 [www.historic-recordings.co.uk] ****:
A new label devoted to historic recordings is always welcome to these pages, and so I wanted to audition the Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony (27 January 1942) by Fabien Sevitzky (1893-1967), nephew of his more famous uncle, Serge Koussevitzky. Having assumed the directorship of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1937, Sevitzky made a reputation for his advocacy of modern American music, though his recorded legacy, sadly, reflects little of his devotion. Capitol Records gave him a few discs, some Enescu Rhapsodies and Khachaturian suites, after RCA had permitted two major Tchaikovsky scores, the “Winter Dreams” Symphony and Manfred, and the G Minor Symphony of Kalinnikov. Very little to none of these inscriptions has returned to us.
So, to acquire engineer Damian Rogan’s transfer of the Manfred Symphony comes as a pleasant surprise. The music itself has had a mixed reception, ever since its 1886 premier. A four-movement symphonic poem, it takes for its literary impetus the 1817 poem of Lord Byron, a perennial source of Romantic Agony, as Manfred suffers a wanderer’s curse for some unnamed original sin. Urged by Balakirev to compose a symphonic treatment, Tchaikovsky at first begged off, not wishing to copy Berlioz’ Harold in Italy Symphony. Obviously, Tchaikovsky changed his mind. He cast Manfred as an “idee fixe” in the manner of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, then arranged four tableaux that end with another “orgy” scene–regardless of the Byron text–that contains a fugue and huge organ apotheosis in B-flat Major. Requiring a large orchestra and expensive to mount, the Manfred Symphony receives few public performances. Leonard Bernstein hated the score, calling it “trash” and refusing to lead it. Toscanini admired the score, but his extensive cuts rather streamline it to suit the demands of the Studio 8-H broadcast limits, including station-identifications. Sevitzky, too, uses a cut edition; if I am correct Russian conductor Nathan Rachlin was among the first to play the Manfred Symphony in its full original score.
Taken from RCA Victor DM-940, the old shellacs sound fairly impressive in their new format. Having no liner notes for my copy denies me access to Rogan’s reprocessing method, but the side breaks are seamless. Some hiss and swish still infiltrate the surface sound, but the sonic definition is good, given the limits of RCA’s microphone placement. The Lento lugubre projects the requisite gloom and melancholy. The crescendos peak without shatter, and the Indianapolis lower strings and heavy woodwinds keep the Manfred motif resonant below the transformations of Tchaikovsky’s notion of sonata-form. The second movement depicts Manfred near a waterfall, where the fairy spirit of Astarte appears to him. Virtually melody-less until the mid-section, the entire scherzo movement seems driven by colors, a swift panoply of light, until the D Major main theme breaks out, a real show-stopper in operatic cinemascope. The G Major Andante con moto is an extended siciliano whose program remains rather obscure, perhaps the (Alpine) lull before the storm. From its opening English horn solo with strings, given Sevitzky’s very slow tempo, we can at least relish the fulgent sound the Indianapolis could muster when it wanted to sell a melodist. The last movement, Allegro con fuoco, sits poorly on critics’ ears because of Tchaikovsky’s unnatural penchant for fugues, a vestige of insecurity in his role as a “serious symphonist.” Representing the inflamed horde’s discovery of Manfred among them, Tchaikovsky has the revelers attack him with counterpoint, which might dismay anyone who likes to watch. Good response from Sevitzky’s large forces, and in fairly incisive sonics for the high flutes, the third doubling the piccolo.
Perhaps Mr. Rogan and company will restore the complete Beecham Manfred incidental music by Schumann, a CBS 2-LP set long absent from any active catalogue. But, for the present, this Tchaikovsky Manfred is a keeper.