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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Manfred Symphony, Op.58 (1885) [59:29]
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
Norbert Gembaczka (organ)
rec. April 2013, DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, Russia
Organ recorded separately at St. Ludwig Kirche, Berlin, Germany
PENTATONE SACD PTC5186387 [59:29]

This is the final volume in Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky series presented in SACD. Pletnev with the same orchestra has already recorded the six numbered symphonies and the Manfred Symphony in 1993-96 at the Moscow Conservatory Concert Hall for Deutsche Grammophon. In some quarters Pletnev came in for criticism for his first Tchaikovsky cycle although I rather admired the recordings and played them often. I notice this new Pentatone the Manfred takes more than five minutes longer than the earlier Pletnev recording with only the second movement having a similar timing.

There may be some lovers of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies who will never have come across the Manfred. It's quite a Cinderella. Although unfashionable in recent decades the works of Lord Byron were still extremely popular when Tchaikovsky, at the prompting of Mily Balakirev, wrote this programmatic symphony. Using a scenario written by Vladimir Stasov, Tchaikovsky identified strongly with the tormented Manfred, the hero of Byron’s dramatic poem. The composer was at the peak of his powers in 1885 between the writing of his fourth and fifth symphonies. Tchaikovsky captures the desolate wretchedness of this tortured soul with the ‘Manfred’ theme appearing at the beginning and returning in each of the four movements.

Pletnev ensures that dark mystery imbues the initial pages of the extended opening Lento lugubre. Compared to Pletnev’s earlier recording this account almost immediately feels far more intense and weighty. A gripping tension runs through the movement as the tormented “Manfred is wandering alone through the Alps”. The moving Astarte episode has a sense of deep longing. In the final section Pletnev obtains a sustained eruption of brutal orchestral power. I’ve rarely heard a brass section sound as clear and expressive. Marked Vivace con spirito in the second movement “The Alpine fairy appears before Manfred in the rainbow of a waterfall”. This is warm and affectionately glowing writing and Pletnev conducts it with unerring sensitivity. There's no attempt to over-inflate and the effect is quite magical. The mainly pastoral mood of the Andante con moto where “Manfred meets alpine hunters…” is redolent of verdant alpine valleys, flower-strewn pastures and dangerous mountain peaks. The playing of the RNO is refined and unaffected. It gives voice to the joy of nature. The Finale marked Allegro con fuoco where “Manfred comes to Ahriman's cave to seek a reunion with Astarte…” opens with a furious bacchanal in the underground dominion of the evil king Ahriman. This is music of energy and drama to which Pletnev brings unyielding concentration and high voltage. I notice that the impressive organ part was recorded separately.

I was delighted with the vivid well balanced sound of this SACD hybrid multi-channel recording. Decent liner-notes too by Franz Steiger in an English translation although a photograph or two of Tchaikovsky wouldn’t have gone amiss. All sections of the RNO are in remarkable form and are splendidly captured in stunning sound.

Pletnev ensures bitingly dramatic playing in this compelling and memorable account of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony.

Michael Cookson