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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Marche Slave, Op. 31 (1876) [9.30]
Manfred Symphony, Op. 58 (1885) [58.01]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 24-27 September 2013, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK
ORFEO C895151A [67.34]

Andris Nelsons has helped reinvigorate the reputation of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) on the international stage. This he has done to a level similar to that achieved by Sir Simon Rattle as chief conductor (1980-98). Nelsons has now said his farewells to the Birmingham orchestra after eight inspiring years as music director but has left behind a valuable legacy of recordings on Orfeo: Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. Now we have their fourth album comprising Marche Slave and the Manfred Symphony.

Opening the release is the tone poem Marche Slave. This was an 1876 commission by the Russian Music Society for a concert in aid of the Red Cross Society who were helping wounded Serbian soldiers. At that stage in the Serbian-Ottoman War, Russia was supporting Serbia and its goal of independence. It was Nikolai Rubinstein who conducted the premičre that was given in Moscow late that year. Using several Serbian and Russian themes and a clever mix of folk and martial character Tchaikovsky constructed a stirring work full of patriotic fervour over which Nelsons exercises judicious control. Serving as a rallying cry the finale is an outpouring as jubilant as one could wish to hear.

I guess a number of lovers of Tchaikovsky’s late symphonies will have never come across the Manfred Symphony. It’s a score that tends to be overlooked. Although unfashionable in recent decades the literary works of Lord Bryon were still extremely popular when Tchaikovsky, at the prompting of Mily Balakirev, wrote this programmatic work. Using a scenario written by Vladimir Stasov, Tchaikovsky identified strongly with the tortured soul of Manfred, the hero of Byron’s dramatic poem. Tchaikovsky was at the peak of his powers when he composed the Manfred Symphony in 1885 the decade between his fourth and fifth symphonies. Tchaikovsky captures the desolate wretchedness of this tortured character with the ‘Manfred’ theme appearing at the beginning and returning in each of the four movements.

Nelsons creates a sense of dark foreboding that imbues the opening of the extended opening Lento lugubre. A riveting tension runs through the movement as the tormented soul wanders “alone through the Alps”. The moving Astarte section containing passion and longing and aptly reflects Manfred’s tender feelings. In the final section at point 14.45 (track 2) Nelsons obtains from his players an eruption of fierce orchestral power. Marked Vivace con spirito the second movement is entitled “The Alpine fairy appears before Manfred in the rainbow of a waterfall”. There is a comforting warmth about this glowing writing of the Waterfall vision. Nelsons conducts with lucidity of understanding and does so to quite magical and colourful effect. Under Nelsons’ steadfast control the mainly bucolic mood of the third movement Andante con moto where “Manfred meets the mountain people” evokes a scene of verdant Bernese alpine valleys from flower strewn pastures, to ice cold streams to gleaming mountain peaks. The playing of the CBSO feels polished and expressive of the joy of nature. The Finale marked Allegro con fuoco where “Manfred comes to Ahriman's Palace to seek a reunion with Astarte …” opens with an infernal orgy, a furious bacchanal in the underground dominion of the evil king Arimanes. This is music of remarkable energy and drama in a quite thrilling performance. At point 17.11 (track 5) the powerful and weighty entrance of the organ adds another dimension until the work gradually fades to its pianissimo ending. Especially impressive throughout is the degree of shading Nelsons achieves. The strings excel with their unity, weight and intensity, and the brass and woodwind sections sound clear and expressive.

Recorded live the sound team for Nelsons has delivered excellent clarity, presence and balance. There is no extraneous audience noise to speak of and no applause at the end of each work. In a glorious and incisive performance of Manfred the CBSO is lithe and characterful with plenty of bite and eminently able to engage the listener from start to finish.

Nelsons has a serious rival in Manfred with an account played by the Russian National Orchestra in remarkable form under Mikhail Pletnev. The final volume in Pletnev’s series of Tchaikovsky’s complete symphonies in hybrid SACD is splendidly recorded in 2013 at Moscow on Pentatone.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: John Quinn


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