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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Marche Slave, Op. 31(1876) [9:30]
Manfred Symphony in B minor Op. 58 (1885) [58:01]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 24-27 September 2013, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
ORFEO C895151C [67:31]

I’ve been eagerly awaiting this CD ever since I reviewed for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard one of the concert performances from which it derives. This is the latest in a Tchaikovsky cycle from Nelsons and the CBSO. The last three symphonies have already been issued (review) and I’m led to believe that the first three will be issued, as a set, before too long.

Manfred is still too infrequent a visitor to our concert halls, certainly in comparison with the last three numbered symphonies. I suppose one reason for its relative neglect – relative, that is, to numbers 4-6 – may be its length; it is by some distance Tchaikovsky’s longest symphony. Perhaps the prodigious demands that it makes on the orchestra may also have something to do with it. Furthermore it’s lavishly scored, requiring two harps – which come through splendidly on this recording – triple woodwind and a large percussion section, which, as I recall, comprised five players plus timpani on this occasion. In addition Tchaikovsky throws in an organ or harmonium part at the end of the finale. Opportunities to experience a live performance such as the one I heard in Birmingham in September 2013 are worth seeking out, however. The symphony has received a number of recordings even though not all conductors who have recorded the six numbered symphonies have chosen to include Manfred in their cycles.

In evaluating this new recording it’s been interesting to place it alongside some other versions. These include Mikhail Pletnev’s 1993 DG recording with the Russian National Orchestra (review): I’ve not heard their 2013 remake for Pentatone (review). There’s also Vasily Petrenko’s 2007 Naxos traversal with RLPO which Ian Lace (review) and Rob Maynard (review) admired, though I have some reservations, especially alongside this new Nelsons version. Those are both studio recordings, as was Riccardo Muti’s version with the New Philharmonia (EMI 1981). Like Andris Nelsons’ recording the 1960 performance by Konstantin Symeonov and the State TV and Radio Grand Symphony Orchestra was recorded live (review). Symeonov offers Tchaikovsky that is red in tooth and claw and his performance won’t be to all tastes but, my goodness, he makes the sparks fly.

The symphony was written between the Fourth Symphony (1877) and the Fifth (1888), so it’s from the time when Tchaikovsky was at the peak of his creative powers. It is thrillingly orchestrated and contains lots of colourful and powerful music. Arguably the structure isn’t as taut as it might be and that plus its length doubtless explains the cuts which some conductors used to inflict upon the score. On the other hand, perhaps structure was not quite so important to Tchaikovsky as was the need to illustrate vividly the scenario of a work that was based on Byron’s dramatic poem. He used leitmotifs to guide the listener, not least the doleful theme depicting Manfred himself, which is heard right at the start.

The first movement depicts the desolate Manfred wandering in the Alps; he has fled there after his incestuous relationship with his sister, Astarte, was uncovered. The initial marking is Lento lugubre and Nelsons conveys the lugubriousness very successfully. If I say that the orchestral sound is dark and heavy I don’t use the second adjective critically; that’s how it should sound. From this brooding opening Nelsons and his players build a potent atmosphere. However, not everything is dark and desolate and the lighter-toned episodes in which Manfred recollects his dead sister are played with no little delicacy; the section between 9:28 and 11:37 is one such example.

That particular passage raises two issues that ought to be mentioned. The first concerns the pause immediately preceding it. Nelsons prolongs that pause quite a bit, the first of several such instances. When I heard the performance live I thought some of these extended pauses were effective but now I’m not quite so sure that they work as successfully for repeated listening and when one can’t actually see the performers. Perhaps the pauses are held for just a fraction too long. The other point to mention is that during this passage you can clearly hear a quiet but noticeable sound which I suspect may be the sound of the conductor’s breathing that has been picked up by the microphones. This is a persistent feature throughout the performance. It doesn’t spoil the music but some listeners may find it disconcerting, though it’s nowhere near as distracting as the groaning and subdued singing along that one has heard from a number of other conductors.

The glowering, passionate coda, again preceded by a lengthy pause – which does work – has Manfred’s theme poured out by massed strings over pulsating syncopated horn figures. Nelsons thrusts home this passage with great power, the strings really digging into the melody, which is punctuated by doom-laden trombone interjections. Here the dramatic thrust of Nelsons’ reading gives him a pronounced edge over Petrenko, who is fatally broad in this music – and when it is recapitulated near the end of the finale. Petrenko makes the music sound weary rather than passionate. Mind you, if you listen to Symeonov you get a very different experience. He’s simply electrifying here though his baying brass won’t be to all tastes.

The scherzo second movement depicts the appearance to Manfred of the Alpine Fairy by a waterfall. Cue much delicate, delectable writing for strings, woodwind and harps. All of this is delivered expertly by the CBSO. The movement features a beguiling, rolling melody, first heard on the strings (3:00) which might almost be the trio section. This is beautifully played by the CBSO strings – and later by the clarinet - though I wonder if Nelsons doesn’t mould the music just a little too lovingly; perhaps if he’d taken it just a fraction quicker it would have helped. I marginally prefer Petrenko here – though, conversely, I think the CBSO has the edge over the RLPO in the delicate opening pages of the movement. Muti’s New Philharmonia is wonderfully dexterous in this movement and I think he gets the speed for the ‘trio’ tune just right. In this CBSO performance the very end (from about 9:35) is played with gossamer lightness by the violins and harps until the music seems to vanish into thin air.

The third movement depicts the rural idyll of Alpine dwellers. Nelsons adopts a well-judged core tempo which allows the music to flow very naturally with very persuasive phrasing. In this respect he is very similar to Pletnev. Petrenko and Muti are both too slow, I feel. In this movement Nelsons and the CBSO demonstrate considerable finesse and a genuine feel for the Tchaikovsky idiom. The several passages of more passionate music based on the Manfred theme are also very well done.

The finale transports us to the underworld kingdom of Arimanes where Manfred witnesses a bacchanal (to 4:35). The CBSO performance is sizzling, the music full of drive and energy. I recall that at the performance I attended this bacchanal was gripping with Nelsons highly animated as he energised his players. That comes through on the recording. After a brief respite a fugal passage restarts the infernal party (7:59 – 10:09). This is an edge-of-the-seat performance, the players giving it everything. The Petrenko performance is good but I don’t sense quite the same energy and momentum – perhaps recording under studio conditions wasn’t as inspiring as the presence of an audience was in Birmingham. Symeonov’s is a no-holds-barred account. The playing isn’t as polished as that of the CBSO and the orchestra is nowhere near as well recorded – it sounds as if the tambourine player is standing next to the conductor’s rostrum – but it’s viscerally exciting. After the bacchanal has subsided there’s more passionate introspection on Manfred’s part, which is powerfully voiced by Nelsons and his team. The hero’s final vision of Astarte (11:21) is tenderly voiced by the CBSO strings and harps. His demise (or redemption?) is reinforced by the sonorous Symphony Hall organ – the Philharmonic Hall organ is also very impressive in Petrenko’s Liverpool performance. After the quiet coda there is no applause.

The filler is Marche Slave. I’m not greatly taken with the notes in the booklet but the author, Tobias Hell makes an interesting point, linking the two works on this disc. He notes that the March was written for a Red Cross concert to aid Serbian soldiers, wounded in the struggle for Serbian independence from the Ottoman Empire, a cause to which Russia was sympathetic. He draws the parallel with Byron’s active support for the Greek independence movement, which cost him his life. I don’t think Marche Slave is one of Tchaikovsky’s masterpieces but it’s an effective piece and one that’s founded on sincere motives, Nelsons leads a full-blooded, stirring performance.

This is an excellent disc, which shows off the Nelsons/CBSO partnership to admirable effect. There’s plenty of adrenalin in the performances and the very good recorded sound conveys both the power and the subtlety of the orchestra’s playing. This is a worthy companion to the previous releases in this Birmingham Tchaikovsky series and it makes me look forward all the more to the remaining three symphonies that are in the pipeline.

I’m left with two thoughts. One is to wonder if the fine performance of the Rococo Variations with Daniel Müller-Schott, which was given in the same concert as these two pieces was recorded; I should like to hear it again. The other is a feeling of intense regret that the splendid performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony that I heard from Nelsons and the CBSO not long ago (review) was not recorded. Conductor and orchestra were then on the same blazing form that we can hear on this disc and their Rachmaninov performance, had it been recorded would have been a significant addition to their discography. Sadly, with Nelsons leaving Birmingham in a matter of weeks now, I presume that will remain a tantalising might-have-been. However, this recording of Manfred will be a fine reminder of his partnership with the CBSO at its peak.

John Quinn