Manfred Symphony in B minor, Op. 58(1885)
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Dmitri Kitaienko
rec. 29-31 March 2009, Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne, Germany
Happily, this new Manfred arrived just a few days before Vassily Petrenko was due to conduct the same work at the BBC Proms (see review). The latter’s much-fêted Naxos recording (see review) also heralds something of a musical renaissance for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which is playing better today than it has for years. It’s clear from this new Kitaienko disc that the Gürzenich band is also in good shape, and they’re presented here in glorious, full-bodied Super Audio sound. Petrenko is not so blessed, either on disc or via the Proms relay, but what I wanted to know is how he compares with Kitaienko in terms of overall performance. It turned out to be a most instructive exercise.
Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred, written between 1816 and 1817, is one of the cornerstones of Romanticism. The eponymous hero, tortured by the death of his beloved Astarte, seeks in vain for some kind of redemption. His singleness of purpose is typically Faustian but, unlike the latter, his eventual death is gratefully received. Byron’s lines - remarkable in their emotional range and intensity - make Manfred an obvious choice for 19th-century composers, yet only Schumann and Tchaikovsky took up the challenge. Conductors seem equally reticent - Manfred is the least recorded of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies - but thankfully there are fine versions from the likes of Riccardo Muti (EMI) and Mariss Jansons (Chandos).
Within seconds it’s obvious that Kitaienko’s Manfred is going to be something special. The sheer desolation of that opening phrase has seldom been so keenly felt, that haunting tune destined to return - like a Berliozian idée fixe - throughout the symphony. Some may baulk at Kitaienko’s rather slow speeds, but then this is a more spacious reading than most, teasing out all the music’s ravishing details. The deep, wide sound-stage and the pleasing concert hall ambience really help here, the magisterial climax at the end of the first movement blossoming to thrilling effect. This is a very different performance to either of Petrenko’s, both of which strike me as somewhat unrelenting in their forcefulness and drive. Yes, they are exciting, but alongside the dark intensity and Byronic brooding of Kitaienko’s performance they seem curiously one-dimensional.
Make no mistake, Kitaienko is alive to the changing moods and textures of this work, the scurrying figures of the second movement as light and airy as one could wish for, the bright flutes and harp flourishes especially well caught. All too often Manfred can seem like a series of discrete tableaux, but in Kitaienko’s hands there’s a strong narrative, a dramatic coherence, that is most welcome. Indeed, the longueurs that afflict even the best performances of Manfred are entirely absent here, the mind and ear constantly surprised and delighted by what unfolds. There’s little of that sense of discovery with Petrenko, whose thrust and thrill approach tends to miss some of the the shifts and shades of this score.
The third movement is surely the most balletic, Kitaienko infusing the opening bars with a gentle lift and elegance that is most beguiling. The Gürzenich band respond with playing of great refinement, the climaxes carefully paced and scaled in a reading that seems so much better proportioned and more sensibly weighted than usual. Really, this is a deeply penetrating performance, the characterful, beautifully blended wind playing at the end of this movement encapsulating everything that is so admirable about this disc. Try as I might, I simply cannot engage with Petrenko here, even though the RLPO play their hearts out for him. And anyone watching the televised Prom will see from the players’ body language that he really has energised this orchestra.
The fourth movement - also the longest - is usually the one where I’m likely to ‘wool gather’ - to use Forster’s phrase - but thankfully Kitaienko has the orchestra on a very tight rein. The brass and percussion are simply splendid, the growing tension more palpable than I’ve heard in ages. As for the mighty tam-tam and bass drum they emerge with a clarity and impact one seldom hears in the concert hall. It’s thrilling stuff, yet there’s no denying the profound sense of melancholy that lurks just beneath the surface - epitomised by the reprise of that opening motif - and that’s one element I don’t hear enough of in Petrenko’s readings. And just in case you think Kitaienko is too introspective, try the orchestral earthquake that strikes at 9:58.
Now there’s one aspect of this performance that will polarise opinion, and that’s the organ in the work’s closing pages. At the Prom Petrenko has the Albert Hall organ at his disposal - and what a glorious sound it makes - but Tchaikovsky originally scored the passage for the more discreet harmonium. I suppose we ought to be grateful that wheezy old relic isn’t used here any more, but listening to the much more restrained Kölner Philharmonie organ I’m persuaded this is the weight and blend of sound Tchaikovsky had in mind. After all, this isn’t the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony, nor is it an ode by Klopstock. For the Romantic hero ‘half in love with easeful death’ this is no blazing apotheosis, but an end that’s gratefully acknowledged and nobly borne. This music has seldom sounded so moving, Kitaienko gauging the valedictory mood with great sensitivity and style.
All too rarely one hears performances that challenge convention and old favourites alike. This Manfred is one of them, outshining Petrenko - and others - at every turn. As for the Gürzenich orchestra, they play with a passion and polish that wouldn’t disgrace a top-flight international band. Couple that with a fresh, invigorating take on a hoary old favourite and yes, you have a Manfred to die for.
Dan Morgan
A Manfred to die for.