“I’ve loved Tchaikovsky’s music ever since I can remember. Like all first loves this one never died.” Semyon Bychkov (2016)
review of the first volume of Semyon Bychkov’s
The Tchaikovsky Project comprising the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony and Romeo and Juliet I commented on attending one of his concerts at Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2016 and being bowled over by the conducting of Bychkov in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Still resonating in the memory is how the Leningrad- (now Saint Petersburg-) born Bychkov conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra at Semperoper in a performance of rare distinction; it was that superior!
Now for volume two in The Tchaikovsky Project Bychkov, again conducting the Czech Philharmonic, has chosen the enigmatic ‘Manfred’ Symphony a work he considers “a masterpiece.” Once again Bychkov was allowed a liberal quantity of rehearsal time to make this recording and the impeccable preparation shows in the orchestra’s beautiful and passionate playing.
It will be no surprise if a number of admirers of Tchaikovsky’s late symphonies have never come across the ‘Manfred’ Symphony; it’s a score that can be overlooked, with the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony tending to take the lions’ share of the attention. Although unfashionable in recent times, the literary works of Lord Bryon were still extremely popular when Tchaikovsky, at the prompting of Mily Balakirev, wrote his programmatic ‘Manfred’ Symphony. Based loosely on Byron’s Gothic poem Manfred, using a scenario written by Vladimir Stasov, Tchaikovsky identified strongly with the tortured soul of Byron’s hero Manfred. Undoubtedly Tchaikovsky was at the peak of his powers when he composed the ‘Manfred’ Symphony in 1885, during the decade between his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Tchaikovsky captures the desolate wretchedness of this tortured character with the ‘Manfred’ theme appearing at the beginning and returning in each of the four movements.
In the substantial opening movement, Lento lugubre, Bychkov progressively develops an undertow of dark foreboding that gradually imbues the writing. A spellbinding tension runs through the movement as the tormented soul “Manfred is wandering alone through the Alps”. The moving Astarte section, containing passion and longing, aptly reflects Manfred’s tender portrait of his sister. In the final section, at 15:32,Bychkov obtains significant power and an unsettling tension. In the second movement, marked Vivace con spirito “The Alpine fairy appears before Manfred in the rainbow of a waterfall”. There is a reassuring affection to the glowing writing of the Waterfall vision that Bychkov conducts with clarity of understanding, creating a quite magical and colourful effect. In Bychkov’s hands the music has a buoyant Mendelssohnian quality and the sound world of the composer’s ballets, especially The Nutcracker, is never far away. Under Bychkov’s unswerving direction the mainly bucolic mood of the slow third movement where “Manfred meets mountain people” effortlessly evokes a scene of verdant Bernese alpine valleys from flower strewn pastures, to ice cold streams to gleaming mountain peaks. The impressive playing of the Czech Philharmonic feels accomplished and assured, communicating an appealing sense of the joy of nature. The Finale, where “Manfred comes to Ahriman's Palace to seek a reunion with Astarte…” opens with an infernal orgy, a furious bacchanal in the underground dominion of the evil king Arimanes and his eventual demise. This is music of potent energy and drama in a gripping performance from Bychkov and his Czech players. At 17:13 the weighty entrance of the organ adds another dimension to this colourful work prior to the music beginning to fade away. Conducting with a strong sense of security throughout, Bychkov provides a satisfying degree of shading and ensures a splendid internal balance of sound. The Czech strings excel with unity, weight and intensity, and the glowing brass and vibrant woodwind sections are detailed and expressive.
Recorded live in 2017 at Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum at Prague, the sound team provide excellent clarity, presence and pleasing balance. There is no extraneous audience noise to speak of and applause has been taken out at the conclusion. Warwick Thompson's informative essay ‘Bychkov conducts Manfred’ is eminently readable.
With regard to recommendable recordings of the ‘Manfred’ Symphony my two primary selections have been fairly recent releases. First the glorious and incisive 2013 Symphony Hall, Birmingham account from Andris Nelsons and the CBSO on Orfeo. Worthy too is the compelling 2013 Moscow account played by the Russian National Orchestra in impressive form under Mikhail Pletnev on Pentatone. Of the older recordings I admire the drama and precision found on André Previn’s 1973 account with the London Symphony Orchestra on EMI. Without hesitation I can place this majestic new Decca recording from Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic comfortably alongside the finest available accounts in the catalogue.