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CLASSICAL  February 2009

CLASSICAL February 2009

Subject:

Manfred Symphony

From:

James Tobin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 24 Feb 2009 16:28:48 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Manfred Symphony, Op. 58
The Voyevoda (Symphonic Ballad after Mickiewicz)
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky
Vasily Petrenko conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Naxos 8.570568   TT: 68:51

Like Berlioz' 'Harold in Italy,' Tchaikovsky's 'Manfred Symphony' is
a four-movement programmatic work based on a poem by Byron.  Like the
Berlioz work, Tchaikovsky's is extremely romantic.  Schumann also wrote
a work based on "Manfred"; in that case a choir and speaker using Byron's
words in abridged form are in addition to a large orchestra.  Tchaikovsky's
"Manfred Symphony," for large orchestra without instrumental or vocal
soloists, is by far the longest of these works, running nearly an hour
in duration.  A summary of the programmatic content is provided in the
notes accompanying the CD and, as the work can be enjoyed without reference
to the poem, I will comment simply on the music.

Recorded much less frequently than any of Tchaikovsky's numbered
symphonies, even the early ones, the Manfred deserves to be much better
known.  It contains the kind of melodic appeal and colorful orchestration
that makes Tchaikovsky such a popular composer and it has dramatic
interest besides.  For anyone unfamiliar with it but who cares for the
work of its composer, this recording will be a refreshing change and a
desirable acquisition.  The performance is excellent and the recording
quite adequate.

Written between his fourth and fifth symphonies, this work's opening,
marked 'Lento lugubre,' is reminiscent of the sixth.  The rest of the
movement is marked 'Moderato con moto' and then 'Andante.' Details I
noticed on this hearing included a brief passage reminiscent of Swan
Lake and, particularly, the quiet way Tchaikovsky ends the movement,
more like the way Sibelius ends the opening movement of his first movement
than with Tchaikovsky's more usual practice.  Various moods expressed
along the way include moments of rising tension, culminating in climaxes;
there are ominous episodes, but also a quiet moment marked by a new
theme.

The second movement, 'Vivace con spirito,' the only one that runs less
than ten minutes, and my personal favorite, opens with scurrying motion
and a rather upbeat melody, which is tantalizing and captivating.  When
the music quiets and slows, Tchaikovsky gives us a waltz, which is
eventually heard below that scurrying melody.  There is also a dramatic
episode with drum rolls, but the movement ends quietly.

The 'Andante con moto' opens at just the right tempo.  So many conductors
pace an andante at a speed that causes me to look again at what the
composer specified, but that is not the case with Petrenko's take.  There
is considerable variety in this movement: the liveliness of a scherzo,
then passages that are, in turn, dance-like, song-like, ominously dramatic
and, finally there is a gentle and quiet mood, expressed by flute and
clarinet.

The long (over twenty minutes) 'Allegro con fuoco' final movement begins
as one would expect from that designation, and the heated dramatic
expression includes an ominous march section, but there are some slow
lyrical passages, including sounds from the harp, before a thunderous
organ passage close to the end, which rivals some in Saint-Saens' Organ
Symphony, but again Tchaikovsky surprises us by ending the work quietly
and gently.

As will be clear from my account, there are very many changes of pace
and mood in the Manfred Symphony.  Especially considering the length of
this work, these are naturally a challenge for any conductor.  The way
Petrenko handles these changes and transitions is impressive and an
outstanding merit of this recorded performance.  Petrenko's pacing is
always apt; the phrasing is clear and effective; climaxes are well-built;
the quiet passages are relaxed; and the transitions between different
kinds of music (dance, march, etc.) always work well.

"The Voyevoda" is another lesser-known work, also based on poetry, this
time Mickiewicz's by way of Pushkin; the theme of which is jealousy and
murder.  One of Tchaikovsky's late works, and admittedly a minor one,
it is nevertheless worth hearing for its melodic content and perhaps the
cross-genre transformation, if one is interested in that sort of thing.

Recently I attended a concert with Petrenko conducting the Milwaukee
Symphony.  It was thoroughly enjoyable in spite of the fact that another
work was substituted for the originally scheduled Manfred, which I had
hoped to hear live.  Following that concert there was a talk-back and
I was struck by Petrenko's response to a comment from a member of the
audience who was impressed by the way the conductor did not permit the
orchestra to overwhelm the soloist in a concerto.  Petrenko's quiet and
brief reply revealed, I think, much about the kind of conductor he is;
he simply said that that is what the score called for.

Copyright 2009 R. James Tobin

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