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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Manfred Symphony in Four Scenes after Byron’s Dramatic Poem, Op. 58 (1885) [57:46]
The Voyevoda (Symphonic Ballad after Mickiewicz) (1890-91) [11:05]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England, 20-21 July 2007
[This CD offers a download bonus – a movement from Berlioz’s Harold in Italy.]
NAXOS 8.570568 [68:51]



Experience Classicsonline

[Ford Maddox Brown’s ‘Manfred on the Jungfrau’ - Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester, England]

The painting depicts an incident from Byron’s epic poem. The Chamois Hunter, seen in the background, persuades the demoralised and disillusioned Manfred not to jump from the mountain’s summit.

Later, and implicit in Tchaikovsky’s third movement music, the hunter offers Manfred hospitality and comfort but to no avail for Manfred realizes that he is doomed.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, or to give the work its full name: “Manfred Symphony in Four Scenes after Byron’s Dramatic Poem, Op. 58” was written between the composer’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Keith Anderson’s notes, for this new Naxos release, do not give this full title but he does include some details about Byron’s poem, sufficient to give meaning to the programme of the music. 

In July 2006 I compared two recordings of the work: the classic 1954 Kletzki recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra now available on Testament SBT 1048; and Jurowski’s 2004 live recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on their own label - London Philharmonic Orchestra LPO-0009. 

Kletzki’s recording, still recommended in the catalogues, is a pared down version of the symphony. As I have remarked, the cuts, in my opinion are fully justified: the main deletions, from the finale, being lugubrious material that adds little and loosens the tension.

I give below, for interest, respective timings for the three recordings. In this review I will concentrate on comparing only the Kletzki and Petrenko readings. I would refer readers to the file above for an assessment of the Jurowski recording.

Manfred Symphony - Timings              Kletzki            Jurowski             Petrenko
Movement I – Lento lugubre – etc             17:03               17:37                     15:43
Movement II – Vivace con spirito                8:37                 8:32                       9:37
Movement III – Andante con moto              9:26               11:38                     11:54
Movement IV – Allegro con fuoco             16:00               20:21                     20:32 

The first movement introduces Manfred, in his Alpine castle. He is tired of life, having drunk his fill of all experiences, forbidden and otherwise. He has shunned the company of men. He communes with the spirit world, attempting to expiate his guilt over his illicit love for his sister Astarte. Byron was, it is thought, probably attempting to expiate a similar incestuous relationship and, in all probability, Tchaikovsky his homosexuality.

Petrenko’s opening is dire and dark indeed. He presents Manfred in the darkest of colours, being totally irredeemable, one senses. Kletzki is a bit kinder, creating a more three-dimensional character. In contrast Petrenko captures Astarte’s sweet innocence and yearning well enough. Like the classic Kletzki recording the RLPO’s opening movement has plenty of bite. It also revels in the advantages of hi-fi sound as well as wide stereo perspectives and dynamics. That said, Testament’s, digital remastering of Kletzki’s 1954 sound is nothing to be sniffed at.

The second movement was suggested by an episode in Byron’s poem in which ‘The Alpine Fairy appears to Manfred beneath the rainbow of the waterfall’. Petrenko, in more expansive mood - 9:37 as opposed to Kletzki’s 8:37 - brings many little felicities and nuances to his evocation of the rainbow shining through the waterfall. Rivalling Kletzki he conjures a most tender portrayal of the Witch of the Alps. In both recordings Manfred’s sudden presence is sinister indeed. The third movement – a pastoral - is subtitled: ‘The simple, free peaceful life of the mountain folk’ –see picture caption above. Petrenko is more bucolic. He makes this episode more of an expansive ramble than Kletzki who is more animated. But Petrenko’s reinstatement of Manfred’s malign influence is devastating especially with its darkly tolling bell.

The finale which departs substantially from Byron’s narrative, depicts a subterranean bacchanal: “the spirit of Astarte appears, and pardons Manfred for his earthly sins before his death." Petrenko’s reading thrusts forward wildly with the music tremendously exciting and the RLPO strings especially keen and characterfully nuanced. Petrenko makes you really feel a thrashing elemental maelstrom as well as a hedonistic celebration and Manfred’s anguish. He does not shy away from using portamento to heighten the emotional temperature. The climax is tremendous with the organ exultantly proclaiming redemption. Gain he rivals Kletzki’s punchy, dynamic reading, itself delivered at white heat.

Tchaikovsky’s symphonic ballad The Voyevoda was inspired by Pushkin, who had in turn been influenced by a work of the Polish poet Mickiewicz. The story is about the Voyevoda, a provincial governor, who surprises his wife with her lover and bids his servant shoot her. The servant shoots his master in error. Tchaikovsky graphically covers the story from his preliminary suspicions, through spying on his wife and then the attempted murder. The mood is sinister. It has been suggested that the work’s mood might have reflected Tchaikovsky’s dismay at the severance of relations between himself and his benefactor, Nadezhda von Meck. The work was first performed in Moscow in 1891 some two years before Tchaikovsky’s death. Petrenko opens the work in agitation with galloping rhythms suggesting the Voyevoda’s anxiety to clarify his suspicions. The lovers’ meeting is depicted as agitated and somber. Their guilt-ridden tryst leads to the ultimate tragedy and Tchaikovsky piles on the agony with Petrenko underlining the music’s rage and the violence.

Petrenko draws a thrilling, darkly-hued Manfred that rivals Kletzki’s classic 1954 mono recording.

Ian Lace

see also Review by Rob Maynard



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