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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Manfred Symphony, Op. 58 (1885)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov
rec. 2017, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague
DECCA 483 2320 [59:19]

This is Volume 2 in the Tchaikovsky Project series that Semyon Bychkov is undertaking for Decca. Volume 1, which I’ve not heard, comprised two Tchaikovsky staples, the Pathétique Symphony and the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture (review). I’m thrilled that so early on in the project Bychkov has included a work which is far from being a repertoire staple but which, I believe, has been a seriously undervalued part of the composer’s oeuvre. Though the recordings are being made with the Czech Philharmonic Bychkov has brought a number of his Tchaikovsky interpretations to London in the last year or so, playing the music with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Manfred was included in a 2017 Prom at the end of August and that performance was much admired by Rob Barnett (review). I missed the broadcast and in a way I’m now glad I did because as a result I was able to approach this recording with fresh ears.

Manfred was seriously neglected for many years, criticised for its length and for the alleged repetitiousness of the music. It’s true that it’s longer than any of the composer’s other symphonies but my experience has been that a well-conducted and well-played performance will make the length an irrelevance. It’s also true that Tchaikovsky does let us hear his thematic material quite a lot during the course of the symphony. However, Warwick Thompson’s booklet note, which includes a good number of remarks by Bychkov, staunchly argues the case for the defence without resorting to special pleading. Bychkov makes the point that what Tchaikovsky is doing in this symphony is using the device of leitmotif to tell the story. He further adds the important observation that the composer “constantly changes the melodies in a brilliant process of rebirth and rejuvenation.” He might have added that if it’s acceptable – indeed, essential – for Wagner to use leitmotif for narrative purposes then why shouldn’t Tchaikovsky do likewise?

It’s revealing that such was the neglect of Manfred, even in Russia, that Bychkov never heard it during his student days there. Indeed, it seems that he only became truly aware of the score when he looked at it in detail to decide whether or not to include it in his Tchaikovsky Project. It was then, as he puts it, that “I discovered a diamond – but one that was covered in stigma.”

In the very first bars of this performance we experience what will be one of its hallmarks: the sheer depth of tone of the Czech Philharmonic. The lower strings provide the firmest of foundations for the ensemble but, in truth, all sections sound magnificent. Bychkov handles the opening paragraphs marvellously, giving lots of space and weight to the music as Manfred’s despair is illustrated. When Tchaikovsky increases the pace (4:50) Bychkov really whips up a storm. Within moments, however, a more ruminative episode is reached (6:50) and the conductor makes the most of the contrast; this is an early indication of a performance that will evidence a great deal of finesse as well as plenty of drama. That impression is heightened by the tenderness with which Manfred’s memories of Astarte are voiced (9:56). Nonetheless, the powerful moments make the strongest impression of all and the dark, glowering final statement (in this movement) of Manfred’s theme by the massed strings (15:31) is projected with potent intensity by the CPO. These concluding pages of the movement are tremendously dramatic. The Decca recording shows the orchestra in all its splendour: there’s a massive tam-tam stroke at the climax and the final chords are punched out over thunderous drum rolls. Phew!

The second movement, Vivace con spirito, depicts the apparition to Manfred of the Alpine Fairy by a waterfall. In the opening pages there’s great delicacy to the playing, especially from the woodwind section. The trio section has a wonderful rolling tune and in this performance it’s delectably spun (from 2:59). Bychkov and his players bring balletic grace to this episode. For a comparison I turned to the live recording by Andris Nelsons and the CBSO, a performance that I admired very much – and not just because I had the good fortune to attend one of the performances at which the recording was made (review). This was one of Nelsons’ last Birmingham recordings – and also one of his best. However, in the trio section of this movement Nelsons is not as light on his feet as Bychkov and he indulges in more conscious moulding of the tune. In some ways, I like his expressiveness but I much prefer Bychkov’s more natural pacing and phrasing.

The third movement, Andante con moto, opens with pastoral music that has a winning innocence. Here Nelsons is a little bit swifter in his pacing than Bychkov but both conductors convince. The rural idyll doesn’t last long because the music soon becomes much more powerful and urgent (3:28 in the Bychkov performance). Emotions start to run more strongly – Bychkov is excellent here – until Manfred’s theme is heard again – but in yet another subtle variant (6:19). From this point on the music is vintage Tchaikovsky and Bychkov is a surefooted guide.

You need to fasten your seat belts for the finale because Tchaikovsky takes us with Manfred to a bacchanal in the palace of Arimanes, the Prince of the underworld. Bychkov’s performance is high octane but superbly controlled. Nelsons, recorded live, is no less exciting and he scores a small but telling point so far as I’m concerned in that the important tambourine part can be heard much more clearly in his performance than in the Bychkov. Even though the tambourine player is a bit bashful the CPO are on stunning form; the CBSO are excellent also but their Czech colleagues have the edge, I think. The bacchanalian tumult subsides (4:34) and we’re glad of the breather. But even though the music is much less frenetic Bychkov still maintains palpable tension – as does Nelsons. Tchaikovsky was criticised in some quarters for incorporating a fugue into his finale. Bychkov dismisses that complaint – rightly – in the booklet and then makes his actions speak even louder than words by leading a biting performance of the episode (from 7:52). This passage is hugely exciting, and the playing is real edge-of-the-seat stuff. Mind you, Nelsons is pretty thrilling too. Later, though, all this excitement subsides and Bychkov is highly impressive in delivering Manfred’s last reminiscence of Astarte with the utmost refinement (11:28). Towards the end of the movement Tchaikovsky reprises the smouldering treatment of the Manfred theme with which he brought the first movement to an end except that, as Bychkov pointed out more generally, it isn’t a straightforward reprise. The treatment is different and the passage culminates in a magisterial moment in which the orchestra is reinforced by an organ. Conductors vary in their treatment of this moment: some give the organ its head while other are more discreet. Bychkov, it would appear, favours discretion and, indeed, it’s the sound of the woodwind choir that is the most prominent. Nelsons makes the most of having at his disposal Symphony Hall’s superb Klais organ and the instrument makes a most imposing contribution. I must say I feel somewhat underwhelmed by this moment on the Bychkov disc. However, as if to compensate Bychkov makes a lovely job of the tranquil conclusion. Byron’s poem is enigmatic: does Manfred achieve redemption or not? Bychkov’s handling of the end of this symphony makes me think that our hero has indeed secured redemption.

This is an extremely distinguished and very exciting account of Manfred. In fact, I think it’s the best that has so far come my way. I still admire the Andris Nelsons performance but Bychkov is preferable on a number of interpretative points. Furthermore, although the CBSO offer very fine and tremendously committed playing for Nelsons the refinement, finesse and tonal weight of the Czech Philharmonic carries the day. Both performances have been vividly recorded but the richness of the Decca sound is a decided asset.

Decca’s booklet note by Warwick Thompson is good in terms of mounting a stout defence of the Manfred Symphony. However, this is at the expense of giving any background to the work itself, still less any commentary on what the listener is hearing. That’s no use whatsoever to anyone who comes to the symphony fresh through buying this disc.

I’m an unrepentant admirer of Manfred. I think it’s a superb piece and one of Tchaikovsky’s finest orchestral achievements. The thematic material is memorable and is very convincingly handled by Tchaikovsky to convey the essence of the story. Above all, the score offers a choice example of Tchaikovsky’s skill as a colourful and imaginative orchestrator; indeed, I’m inclined to think it may be his supreme achievement as an orchestrator. It is, however, tremendously demanding of the orchestra. Thankfully, in the Czech Philharmonic we have here a virtuoso ensemble which can really deliver the goods. Bychkov comments that the orchestra was unfamiliar with the symphony when he first began to work on it with them and that they had initial reservations. As they grew to know it better those reservations were swept away. I can only say that their playing here seems entirely convinced and convincing. As for Bychkov, he too came late to the score it seems, but he has clearly become an ardent advocate for it. He leads a thrilling and eloquent performance of this great programme symphony and I urge all Tchaikovsky admirers to hear it.

John Quinn

Previous review: Michael Cookson


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