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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
Symphony "Manfred" Opus 58
Symphonic Fantasy "The Tempest"
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedoseyev
Recorded Live 1999
RELIEF CR 991061 [70.10]


The origins of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Manfred’ Symphony stretch back to Berlioz and his dramatic symphonies and these links help to explain how this singular work came about. In 1867 Berlioz made a last visit to Russia conducting amongst other works the ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ and ‘Harold in Italy’. This caused quite a stir amongst Russian composers and there was much talk of programme symphonies. The critic Stasov sketched out a proposal for a Manfred symphony. This proposal was appropriated by Balakirev who, instead of writing a symphony himself, tried to interest the ailing Berlioz in it. Failing this, the proposal languished until 1882 when Balakirev brought it to the attention of Tchaikovsky. Initially the proposal left him cold but eventually Tchaikovsky duly read Byron’s original poem and sketched out a symphony during 1885. Tchaikovsky kept Balakirev’s dramatic outline, swapping the middle two movements around, but ignored all of his suggestions with regard to keys. The symphony was initially well received, but the composer later came to feel that only the first movement was a success.

This recording is part of a series celebrating Vladimir Fedoseyev’s 25 years conducting the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio and the recording was made live in 1999. Despite a Russian sounding bassoon in the opening pages, the score fails to take wing until the first main string entry. The performance becomes suitably dramatic but the string tone itself lacks the sweep and warmth of other recordings. The recording quality is adequate, but it is impossible to tell whether the rather steely sound of the strings is a feature of the recording itself. The playing is technically pretty good and there are some nice solos from the wind and brass. Though the brass tend to rather dominate in the climaxes. The wind players can have a rather tangy timbre; it is nice to hear that even in the 1990s small differences in national playing styles can survive. There are moments, though, when the coordination between the strings and wind is a little imperfect.

Fedoseyev seems to revel in the textures of the moment, creating beautiful episodes rather than one dramatic sweep. Manfred is a symphony that requires help if it is not to seem like scenes from the ballet that Tchaikovsky did not compose. Fedoseyev rather seems to enjoy this episodic structure. It does not help that his speeds are on the steady side. For all the delicacy of playing, the opening of the scherzo has a fatally steady pedestrian quality. Comparison of speeds is helpful here. In the opening movement Muti takes nearly 3 minutes longer than Fedoseyev, but in the Scherzo, Fedoseyev takes a minute and a half longer. In the Andante it is again Muti who takes his time. It seems that in each movement, Fedoseyev errs on the side of caution and I think it shows in the performance. This is a shame, because in many ways Fedoseyev is a fine advocate for this symphony and there are some superb moments along the way. But Muti’s version also has running through it a vein of toughness which is to some extent lacking in Fedoseyev’s performance. And it is this toughness which helps to keep the spectre of the corps de ballet away from Muti’s performance.

The companion work is Tchaikovsky’s earlier Tempest Fantasy, of which Fedoseyev and the orchestra give an assured performance; though even here the temperature fatally cools in the quieter sections.

This is a fascinating recording of a fine Russian orchestra, but for those interested in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Manfred’ Symphony this is not an ideal performance. Unfortunately, it is difficult to recommend the Muti recording either as it seems to be deleted at the moment.

Robert Hugill


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