Bychkov’s interpretation may be slightly cool, but it is perfectly paced, beautifully played. That equals staying power.

The Tchaikovsky Project, Volume 2 = TCHAIKOVSKY – Manfred Symphony, Op. 58 ‒ Czech Philharmonic / Semyon Bychkov ‒ Decca 483 2320; 59:19 (8/25/2017) ****:

The Manfred Symphony has an odd and interesting genesis. It’s plot line is based on Lord Byron’s dramatic poem of 1817. Manfred tells the story of a man who wonders the Alps tortured by guilt over the death of his love, Astarte. What that guilt involves is never made clear, but there are hints that their affair was incestuous. (Byron himself was accused of incestuous relations with his half-sister.) A necromancer, Manfred calls up a series of spirits from whom he seeks forgiveness, but ultimately he rejects forgiveness, choosing to die unrepentant. A typical Romantic anti-hero, whose antecedents included Faust and whose progeny traveled all the way to America as characters from the pages of Poe (Roderick Usher) and Hawthorne (Goodman Brown, Ethan Brand).

The Russian music critic Vladimir Stasov, presumably having read Manfred in a Russian translation, sketched out a plan for a dramatic symphony based on the poem, giving it to Balakirev for consideration. Balakirev, a composer more adept at inspiring others’ compositional projects than his own, suggested it to the ailing Berlioz, master of the dramatic symphony, during the latter’s Russian concert tour in the fall of 1867. Berlioz, who was to die the next year, didn’t have the energy or will for such a project. So it lay dormant until in 1885 Balakirev finally pestered Tchaikovsky into reluctantly tackling it. Tchaikovsky took Balakirev’s advice to use an idée fixe representing the brooding Manfred (shades of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique). Tchaikovsky also followed the basic plotline presented by Stasov-Balakirev, but he reversed the order of the inner movements, a slow movement depicting the simple lives of mountain shepherds and a scherzo depicting the appearance of an Alpine fairy. He retained the daffy plan for the finale, in which Manfred goes down to the cave of Arimanes (a.k.a. hell) seeking the shade of Astarte. Bryon’s final scene, which finds Manfred dying in a mountain tower, in the company of a sympathetic abbot, just wouldn’t do. So instead, like the finales of the Symphonie Fantastique and Childe Harold, Tchaikovsky’s is a pandemonic orgy conveyed with the help of a big battery of percussion and (not to be outdone by Berlioz) the appearance, in the final pages, of an organ or harmonium announcing Manfred’s death.

Tchaikovsky found special inspiration in tales of forbidden or at least troubled love (Romeo and Juliet, Paolo and Francesca, Hamlet and Ophelia), a result of his tormented feelings about his own homosexuality, anathema in the deeply conservative time and place in which he lived. So Tchaikovsky is especially effective in portraying the spiritual agonies of Manfred in the first movement. (At one point Tchaikovsky even considered retaining just this movement and destroying the other three!) In the second movement, with its de rigeur imitations of the ranz des vaches, melody of the Alpine herdsmen, Tchaikovsky doesn’t rise to the inspirational level of Berlioz in the corresponding movement of Symphonie Fantastique, but the scherzo is a quicksilver delight. The orgy in the finale is an exciting affair, and the death of Manfred is touchingly mounted by Tchaikovsky. But the movement, at around twenty minutes’ time, goes on way too long. Oh, and then in the middle of the proceedings, the composer tosses in a learned fugue as he did in the otherwise folksy finale of his Third Symphony. Why? That’s just what a conservatory-trained musician does, apparently. Conductor Semyon Bychkov defends Tchaikovksy’s choice: “People say a fugue is a ‘technical exercise’, but Bach composed lots of fugues and none of them are technical exercises. Just because Tchaikovsky uses a certain form, it does not become devoid of dramatic meaning. He was a composer who was as sophisticated polyphonically as much as he was melodically—people often forget that.” Nice try, Mr. Bychkov, but it just doesn’t wash.

Anyway, even if the Manfred Symphony isn’t on a par with Romeo and Juliet or even Francesca da Rimini, it still has many moments of power and beauty, which is why it keeps showing up more and more in concert halls and on recordings.

Bychkov’s defense of the fugue and the other sympathetic things he has to say about the symphony in the notes to this recording are not just idle comments. His dismissal of the idea that the work is repetitious or episodic suggests that he has thought a lot about how to mitigate the score’s weaknesses, if not turn weaknesses to strengths. What Bychkov says about the first movement is especially telling: “After Manfred’s dramatic first appearance in the first movement, there is a pause before the pure, angelic theme of Astarte begins. Yes, it could feel like a ‘start-stop’ moment.  But if you think of that silence as being as important as the notes—as  you would in an opera house—you feel that Astarte is the source of Manfred’s misery as much as she was the source of his love.”

I won’t go so far as to say that Bychkov renders the Manfred Symphony a seamless creation of genius. The seams are still quite evident, but the conductor does manage to tie the episodes together, through deft use of pacing and preparation for salient moments in the score, in a more convincing way than do a number of interpretations I’ve heard. Other critics I’ve glanced at have noted a certain coolness in this performance, and that’s true compared to the super-heated Muti reading (now on Warner Classics), which I still think of as the classic recording. Also, while the Decca sound engineering is fine, capturing the beautiful and often powerful playing of the Czech band effectively, it seems slightly veiled to me. The almost forty-year-old Muti recording has better stereo definition and sense of depth, despite a tendency to early-digital overbrightness. Be that as it may, the Bychkov Manfred Symphony is a convincing portrayal of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic vision and deserves a listen even if you own other favored recordings of the work, as I do.

—Lee Passarella