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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Manfred symphony, op.58 (1885) [57:46]
The Voyevoda (symphonic ballad after Mickiewicz), op.78 (1891) [11:05]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 20-21 June 2007
NAXOS 8.570568 [68:51]
Experience Classicsonline

You know just how it is.  You wait ages for a bus – and then two come along at the same time!  I guess that this very welcome new release from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, following on quite soon after Vladimir Jurowski’s successful recording of Manfred with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO0009) is a little like that.
In fact, even though it now appears to be thought an effective calling-card for young tyro conductors showing off their skills with their new orchestras, Manfred remains among the less frequently recorded of Tchaikovsky’s scores.  And even when it has been recorded, it has sometimes been subjected to some pretty drastic cuts in the finale – timed at 20:32 on this new recording - especially so in the days when stellar conductors could get away with greater wilfulness.
Toscanini’s finale, for instance, clocked in at just 13:04, in his 1940 Studio 8H broadcast, or 13:26 when he recorded the work at Carnegie Hall nine years later -  timings that, incidentally, convincingly refute two generalisations often made about him – that he never tampered with scores and that he consistently produced faster accounts as he got older.  Similarly, Paul Kletzki’s much-admired account from 1954 (Testament SBT1048) cut the last movement to 16:00, though I must point out that my colleague Ian Lace, for one, thought the excisions justified on the grounds that they were of “lugubrious material that adds little and loosens the tension”.
As already noted, though, this new Naxos recording gives us the complete score and, pace Ian, at the same time retains the tension.  It is all the more welcome for that.  It offers, moreover, convincing proof of the orchestra’s rejuvenation under its young principal conductor appointed in 2006, Vasily Petrenko.  Some of the reviews that the orchestra had been generating in the early part of the decade were, after all, positively embarrassing.  After an April 2004 performance of Mahler’s fifth symphony under Petrenko’s predecessor Gerard Schwarz at the Philharmonic Hall, The Guardian’s critic Pauline Fairclough opined that “there were moments when the RLPO strings truly sounded like a school orchestra, slouching their way through even the Adagietto ... Rarely has a 60-strong string section sounded quite so feeble…  [T]his performance … [was] one of the most inglorious occasions in the RLPO's recent history.”
Since then – and helped too, it must be noted, by a huge injection of cash – Petrenko, widely acknowledged as a conductor who both inspires his musicians and brings fresh insight to even the most familiar and hackneyed works, has shaken things up considerably.  Audiences are now bigger – and they are generally younger.  And, if this Manfred is a good indication of what is going on, that is not so hard to understand.
Manfred poses particular problems, it is often said, because of its specific narrative “programme”.  Any difficulties are relative easily overcome in the first three movements where the programme is quite generalised and concerned with atmosphere rather than specific action.  They really surface, however, in the finale where Tchaikovsky’s determination to follow the explicit requirements of the “story” can impede the musical flow - so explaining those drastic cuts imposed in the past by no doubt well-meaning conductors. 
Petrenko triumphs, however, in navigating the fine line between compelling drama and superficial melodramatics with notable success.  Within a comparatively weighty interpretation, he skilfully utilises the RLPO’s plangent orchestral palette - the woodwinds are especially impressive - to emphasise the score’s darker elements of foreboding and maintain its emotional tension. This he does even at points where other conductors have compromised its integrity by seeking to lighten the mood. 
What is particularly impressive from the outset is the way in which Petrenko moulds a strong sense of anticipation - and even an element of mystery - while resisting any temptation to dawdle.  At about 4:30, for instance he presses on dramatically where others frequently linger.  Similarly, at 6:14 he encourages the horn player to eschew anything that sounds backward-looking and nostalgic: after all, nostalgia at only six minutes in, even if it is supposed to represent the central character’s feelings of remorse, doesn’t really make a great deal of musical sense.  Paradoxically, Petrenko skilfully manipulates his orchestra’s rich and full overall sound - well above school orchestra standards now! – to create a more than usually bleak and desolate musical climate so that even Tchaikovsky’s occasional consolatory phrases seem essentially empty.  The controlled power he applies to the movement’s final orchestral peroration is most impressive.
The skittish, almost balletic opening of the second movement, vivace con spirito, is very well executed.  Petrenko again digs beneath the superficial, managing to convey the idea that there is something a little uncomfortable here, thereby maintaining that all-important emotional tension established in the first movement.  The first entrance of the lyrical theme at 2:54 is done with just a hint of reserve, for example, remaining unresolved until its more obviously joyous reappearance at 4:58. 
A more languorous than usual opening to the beautifully played slow movement sets the tone for something rather more contemplative than we are necessarily used to.  Although the tempo picks up a little from 5:03 onwards, the movement’s final section is notably slow and has a peculiarly edgy and slightly disturbing quality to it, much of a piece with what has gone on before.
There is a similar reticence at the opening of the finale, not as fiercely attacked as in some rival accounts.  That holding-back, followed by relatively controlled tempi successfully racks up the tension in preparation for that problematic fugue.  As a result, the latter emerges as less of the proverbial protruding sore thumb here than is often the case.  Creative use of wide dynamics – and especially of silence – adds to the strangely unsettling and uncomfortable atmosphere and makes one wonder exactly what sort of stop-go bacchanal Tchaikovsky is trying to depict.
Coming to The Voyevoda, at first it appears that Petrenko and his forces are offering simply a very well played performance of a straightforward and relatively unchallenging piece.  But what they do with it from about 9:34 onwards is quite remarkable, with what sounds like a complete and dramatically overpowering orchestral meltdown that exactly fits the bleakly depressing storyline of an adulterous wife and a husband driven to attempt her murder.  These expertly performed final few moments raise this to far more than a mere makeweight track.
I have never heard Petrenko in the flesh but, on the basis of this disc, I can see what the critics are getting at.  Manfred may never be able to overcome its inherent flaws and inconsistencies - Tchaikovsky himself called it “an abominable piece” while Leonard Bernstein is said to have dismissed it as “trash” - but what we have here is a coherent and consistent overall conception that that does its very best for the score.  On top of that, the revitalised Liverpool orchestra plays with both flair and sensitivity and the Philharmonic Hall’s generous acoustic has been well served by producer Tim Handley and his team.
If you have not yet bought Vladimir Jurowski’s London Philharmonic Orchestra disc, then – given the fact that Petrenko offers the extra treat of The Voyevoda – you might choose this new release instead.  If you do, you will certainly not be disappointed.  Alternatively, though, given Naxos’s usual bargain price, you might well be tempted instead to catch both those late-arriving buses for, in their individual ways, they each offer exciting and illuminating journeys. 
Rob Maynard


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