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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night's Dream – Overture and excerpts from incidental music, Opp.21 & 61 [35:40]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Manfred Symphony, Op. 58 [60:51]
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec. live, August 2017, Concert Hall of KKL, Luzern.
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound formats: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Region code: 0
ACCENTUS ACC20438 DVD [99:32]

This concert from the 2017 Lucerne Festival, which explored the theme of ‘Identity’, features an interesting juxtaposition of music by Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.

In the first half Riccardo Chailly offers the miraculous Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, written when Mendelssohn was just seventeen. Seventeen years later, in his maturity, Mendelssohn returned to Shakespeare’s play and effortlessly recaptured the spirit of his precocious Op 21. From the Op 61 incidental music Chailly and the LFO play the Scherzo, Intermezzo, Notturno and Wedding March. The performance of the overture is simply wonderful, right from the voicing of those initial woodwind chords and the elfin delicacy with which the strings play the music that follows. It’s a marvellously agile performance, and a spirited one, too. The account of the Scherzo is dextrous, the woodwinds impressing particularly. In this movement I much admired the dynamic contrasts. In the Notturno the LFO’s principal horn, Alessio Allegrini really impressed me with his suave and expertly shaded playing. Chailly shapes this piece with evident affection, indeed con amore. The selection concludes with a joyous rendition of the celebrated Wedding March. This first half of the concert is delectable.

The Manfred Symphony is not heard as often as it deserves in our concert halls. There are several practical reasons for this, I think. For one thing it’s long, much longer than the six numbered symphonies. Furthermore, it requires a very large orchestra indeed, including triple woodwind, five percussionists in addition to the timpanist, two harps and, ideally, an organ, though this can be dispensed with if absolutely necessary. In addition to these practical difficulties it is a ferociously demanding score for all sections of the orchestra. I’ve loved it ever since I first came to know it through Yevgeny Svetlanov’s Melodiya LP, a reading properly described by Rob Barnett as “shattering” (review). My appetite for this Chailly performance was well and truly whetted when my colleagues and I viewed the first movement during the most recent session in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. Happily, the reading of the remaining three movements has proved to be on the same high level.

In the substantial first movement Chailly brings out all the restless deep melancholy that Manfred feels as he wanders. One feature of the performance that impresses – and it will recur elsewhere in the symphony – is the sheer weight and depth of tone produced by the LFO strings. I don’t mean to imply that the sound is in any way turgid; rather, one hears the gloomy string passages delivered with a tonal quality that is completely appropriate. By contrast, the orchestra plays the several more delicate episodes with great finesse. The closing passage of the movement, where Manfred’s theme is first played passionately by massed strings and then taken up by the brass, is delivered with terrific ardour.

The outer passages of the scherzo-like second movement are played with great virtuosity: the precision of the woodwind section is fantastic. An extended rolling tune dominates what is in effect the trio. Chailly encourages his players to phrase this tune with great imagination. What a captivating melody it is, especially when played like this. At the end, after the reprise of the scherzo material, the music seems to vanish into thin air. The slow movement begins with a gentle pastoral oboe solo, here beguilingly voiced by Lucas Macias Navarro, who, like his fellow woodwind principals, is in tremendous form throughout the concert. Chailly shapes the pastoral episodes in this movement most persuasively while the more passionate stretches – top-drawer Tchaikovsky – sound superb here,

I said earlier that Manfred is ferociously demanding for the orchestra and nowhere is this more true than in the huge finale. Mind you, the difficulties seem as nothing to this virtuoso orchestra. The principal event portrayed is a bacchanal in the palace of Arimanes, the Prince of the underworld. The music is red-blooded and full of excitement and a good performance will have the listener on the edge of his or her seat. This is a very good performance and I was gripped by it. The LFO’s individual and corporate virtuosity is simply staggering and not only do they bring out all the colour and drama in the music, they do so with tremendous clarity of texture. Not everything is full-blooded excitement, though: the passage depicting Manfred’s last reminiscence of his beloved Astarte is played with great tenderness – the harps make a wonderful contribution at this point. Towards the end of the movement Tchaikovsky reprises the music heard at the end of the first movement. Here it makes a terrific impact. The entry of the organ is just right: the instrument clearly adds an extra dimension to the orchestral colouring without dominating. Then the gentle redemptive coda is most poetically done.

This is a magnificent performance of Manfred and the Lucerne audience rightly greets it with warm applause. Significantly, it’s the LFO’s woodwind choir that Chailly brings to its feet first, followed by the principal horn. That’s as it should be since these players have been superb throughout but, then, so has the entire orchestra. Chailly conducts the symphony marvellously, pacing every bit of it most convincingly. He’s not a flashy conductor but it’s obvious that he communicates with his players exceptionally well and, boy, does he get results. One doesn’t perhaps immediately associate him with Russian music but as I watched this account of Manfred I recalled an occasion a few years ago when I saw him lead the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig in what was probably the finest live performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony that I have ever experienced (review).

Accentus have presented this wonderful concert very well. The picture quality is excellent throughout and the sound is also very good. There’s an interesting booklet essay by Marco Frei about the music and about Riccardo Chailly’s work as successor to Claudio Abbado.

I believe there is also a Blu-ray version of this release. That may offer even better sound and vision. However, I doubt that anyone investing in the DVD version will be disappointed.

John Quinn



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