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Tchaikovsky Manfred 0852872
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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOSKY (1840-1893)
Manfred Symphony in B minor, Op 58 [60:20]
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Scherzo capriccioso, Op 68 [13:39]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich
Rec. 25-26 October 1976 (Tchaikovsky), 2,4 & 8 October 1980, Kingsway Hall, London
Presto CD
WARNER CLASSICS 0852872 [73:49]

It has been argued for many years that great recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred are very thin on the ground. Or to put it another way: If Tchaikovsky were Napoleon and the fifty or so recordings of this work were his foot soldiers, he would be going into battle with many of them wounded or dead before a shot had been fired. Yes, it is that bad. But this symphony is one of the great paradoxes of the symphonic repertoire. It is an unforgiving work, though it is also an unquestionable masterpiece. It is notoriously difficult to play well, but it’s a gift of a work for orchestras willing to plunge headlong into its opulent scoring. The work’s length and pictorial and dramatic sectionalism aren’t always of the highest order, with the huge last movement posing many problems. It takes a great conductor not to make this worse. Having been composed between the Fourth and the Fifth symphonies it has elements of both those works, though is quite unlike either. Manfred out-powers the Fourth in its turbo-charged violence and incendiary climaxes, yet pre-empts the Fifth in its opulence, transfigured lyricism and beautifully refined melodies. Its similarities to the Sixth aren’t entirely to be dismissed either.

Manfred, of course, comes in two forms – the cut and the uncut. With Rostropovich we are dealing with the latter. So, that’s one positive about this performance to begin with. Where many a performance of Manfred unravels, however, is in the tempos taken by the conductor. Two of the most notorious examples are by Fabien Sevitsky (Indianapolis, 1942) and Andrei Anikhanov (St Petersburg, 1995). Even changing the tempo in just one movement to quite a dramatic effect badly distorts the architecture and flow of this symphony. Both these conductors add several minutes to the Andante – effectively changing the tempo to adagio, or worse - and the effect, especially in the case of Anikhanov, is to almost stop the music entirely in its tracks (my metronome really struggled with this one). I can’t fathom what either conductor is thinking here, because it has absolutely nothing to do with Tchaikovsky’s score. At the other extreme, there is Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra (Cleveland, 1972 on Disc 8 of the 75th Anniversary Cleveland Orchestra box) who gives one of the most orchestrally thrilling performances ever committed to disc but ignores virtually every major marking Tchaikovsky writes in his score. The Clevelanders may well be incendiary but their scorched earth approach to the work is entirely colourless – absolute death in this symphony. Previn (LSO, 1973) is on the same wavelength as Maazel – a washed-out performance I only ever enjoy for the LSO double-basses. There is a clear middle ground in this symphony, but the risk is that the performance merely becomes average and that is exactly what many Manfred’s are. Rostropovich’s Manfred hits the middle almost perfectly but is it just distinctly average? My feeling is that this is a Manfred that isn’t just average it’s rather less than that.

The third criteria for a great Manfred – and in my view the most important of all – is an ear for detail. It is what the majority of conductors in this work lack, and some by the shovel load. This is a visionary, poetic work – it does after all take its inspiration from Byron – and yet many conductors seem hobbled by the symphony’s deeper points of reference to him or even Berlioz’s Harold. Mix in a bit of Francesca and even Chopin (oh, yes) and some get really bamboozled. If it doesn’t need one to work from the perspective of Byron/Berlioz in their more hallucinogenic mindsets it at least needs one to grasp onto the edges of that world. I suspect the Byronic Leonard Bernstein – who twice allowed himself to be seduced by Liszt’s Faust – found more danger and fascination in Manfred than he was ever willing to admit. Instead, Bernstein avoided Manfred for critical reasons; some conductors have found much to admire in the symphony but should have followed Bernstein’s less compelling reason.

Unfortunately, many of the great performances that guide us most clearly into the darkest secrets of this symphony are those with the most fundamental flaw. A model recording that has a conductor giving us a performance with that magnificent ear for detail is Gennadi Rozhdestvensky in his Moscow Radio Symphony Prom (London, 1966, BBC Classics); but the major problem here is the performance is cut. Another conductor who understands the discipline the strings should have and the precision in the brass in the score is Evgeny Svetlanov in a live recording with the USSR Symphony Orchestra (Tokyo, 1992, on Warner/Exton). Also cut, it breathes the same incredible power and incendiary delivery as the Rozhdestvensky performance. Both conductors add (unscored) cannon-fire of timpani in the coda to the first movement – although I will take either of these over what Rostropovich and the LPO do, which is very little with what they do have. In fact, Rostropovich does something quite peculiar with the timpani rolls which I really can’t recall with other performances. His final ones start with a decrescendo working up to a crescendo – and he does this twice – before almost working in the opposite direction on the next before sustaining the crescendo on the final one. It only emphasises the two major problems with this coda: the LPO’s over-weighty playing of it, and Rostropovich’s lugubrious conducting of it, despite what is on paper a quite fluid tempo. But this is part-and -parcel of a first movement that is monolithic and rarely seems to catch fire. I’m not sure Rostropovich entirely understands that 1/16th triplets should sound like the pulse of terror, and a horde of shrieking and howling demons (Fig. D). But there we have it.

I’ve not really heard many performances where conductors get much wrong with the Vivace con Spirato, and Rostropovich doesn’t either I am happy to say. It’s surprising, given the huge power of the LPO’s strings, that he can retain any sense of symphonic contrast. We might not quite get that “falling water” feeling, and some of the cloudiness in Rostropovich’s balancing of the LPO’s woodwind is unclear. I don’t hear the division of the flutes (bar. 31 to 40) and nor do I notice them playing a semitone higher when we get to bar. 51. This entire movement is really about the woodwind – with pitch differences and the contrast in colour defining its atmosphere. You’ll find it in the clarinets – but it’s really the flutes that hold the key to this movement. No conductor I have heard in this symphony expresses all of what Tchaikovsky asks for in the score – and in some places the density of the orchestration is of almost Straussian complexity and Rostropovich gets no closer than the average.

I don’t think the opening of the Andante starts well for this recording. Tchaikovsky marks the oboe solo p molto cantabile e espress – which is not really what we hear. The thick LPO violins cover the oboe, but I also think the less than open recording EMI gave Rostropovich in 1976 does little to highlight the instrument’s solo. But the one single passage of this movement – and perhaps the one I listen to most closely to hear for those special details in this score – is just before the Più mosso (bar.223) close to the “Forgetfulness” motive. What Tchaikovsky particularly wants from the strings is an up-bow and a down-bow (he places these literally everywhere in this score) and the two distinct note values between the con sordini marking – not a single one (so you miss the mf and mp) which you will wrongly hear in most recordings. Rostropovich – because he mostly maintains that slow tempo that began in the first movement – doesn’t sound too problematic here [9:10], although he clearly ignores what Tchaikovsky writes. He comes nowhere close, however, to egregious performances like Maazel/Cleveland and Muti/Philharmonia.

At just over 21-minutes, Rostropovich’s performance of the Allegro con fuoco is problematic, but only because he simply sounds minutes longer than the clock tells us he takes. We run into headwinds as soon as bar 10 where the trills in the strings and high woodwind (and that mysterious smattering of cymbals) should mark the beginning of the wonderful and wild witches sabbath. The performance rather misses this entirely – although he hits the mark with a Despair Motive in the bassoons and basses that is suitably ominous with some foreboding tones in the woodwind and strings. But when it comes to those moments of high drama – the howling of brass on the trombones and tuba especially as Manfred, with his incantation, forces the powers of hell to do his bidding (bars. 170-180) Rostropovich rather loses grip assuming that the power of his orchestra will do his own bidding. It will not, I’m afraid. Astartes’s appearance after the massive Fugato would almost have been a magnificent moment had Rostropovich had a larger leap to make to the Adagio, ma tempo rubato – even though the previous section had been a rather broad Andante. Glissando harps are at least otherworldly and slightly weird which is as they should be.

The moment the organ arrives [17:34] is perhaps the most successful passage of this recording. This couldn’t be a grander and more imposing effort to get Manfred to reconcile himself to the church – the organ is thrilling to listen to, and the LPO, for once, sound rightly almighty. The basses finally settle on their deep B surrounded by fragments of the Dies Irae – but it’s too little too late.

This is not a performance that I have any particular warmness for. It’s not a Manfred for the ages; it is another to add to the pile of recordings that never quite hit the mark. As is common with many of the Manfred recordings made by London orchestras, however, the playing is exceptional. The LPO sound monumental and that may be at least part of the problem here.

I do, however, recommend the three recordings of this wonderful symphony that for me tick every box. All of them have conductors who don’t just understand the details of this score – they all clearly love this work. All elicit magnificent, dramatic and thrilling playing from three great orchestras playing with a rare level of virtuosity for this symphony. Two are on Decca – Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw; this is probably the best played Manfred ever recorded but it’s also one of Haitink’s greatest records (and would have made a much more suitable release for this Presto series since it is only available in Haitink’s complete Tchaikovsky box). Vladimir Ashkenazy and the New Philharmonia Orchestra, also on Decca (now on Eloquence) and in simply thrilling analogue sound. Vastly superior to the slightly later Muti recording with the same orchestra it is hair-raising (the crushing end to the coda of the first movement is devastating). Finally, Ken-ichiro Kobayashi and the Czech Philharmonic on Exton. Fabulously played, this nails climaxes like pylons into the ground and has torrential power throughout.

Rostropovich’s Manfred was coupled with Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade Mélancolique in his complete boxset. This Presto issue is an improvement on Warner’s Japanese release which had no coupling whatsoever – but it’s still odd to have Dvořák’s Scherzo capriccioso here rather than any Tchaikovsky. Although recorded four years after the Manfred, the LPO are every bit as impressively powerful as they were for Rostropovich then. Despite the work’s title suggesting something light, Dvořák instead writes something that is much darker and more dramatic. Its density perhaps doesn’t always suit the glutinous tone of the LPO, but the performance comes across as marginally more successful than the Tchaikovsky.

As with many Presto CDs their release is designed to bring out-of-print single recordings back onto the market – although quite often the performances are less out-of-print and just immersed in a boxset. I don’t think they always get their choices right – and this is the case here with Rostropovich’s Manfred, especially when Bernard Haitink’s Manfred on Decca is languishing in his Tchaikovsky boxset. I can’t really summon much passion for this Rostropovich disc.

Marc Bridle

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