Wednesday 18 October 2017

Scarcely a problem: Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony from Semyon Bychkov & Czech Philharmonic

Semyon Bychkov - Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony - Decca
Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov; Decca
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 4 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Richly dramatic account of Tchaikovsky's 'problem' symphony from Bychkov

Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony is not an early work, it was written three years before Symphony No. 5 and at first the composer thought it was the best thing he'd done, though he later changed his mind. This, and the piece's length, has rather prevented live performance though not recordings. On this new one from Decca, conductor Semyon Bychkov continues his Tchaikovsky Project with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (part of a wider Tchaikovsky Project the conductor is undertaking). The conductor has also been announced as the orchestra's new Chief Conductor.

The idea to write a symphony based on Byron's poem Manfred almost came to Tchaikovsky by accident. In the wake of Berlioz' visit to Russia in 1867-68, when his performances of his programme symphony Harold in Italie cause a stir, Vladimir Stasov wrote a synopsis for a similar work based on Manfred for Balakirev. Balakirev, feeling it was not suitable for him, put it to one side but many years later brought it to Tchaikovsky's attention. Tchaikovsky declined, but Balakirev persisted and after Tchaikovsky re-read the original poem he started work on the symphony.

The poem might have had intriguing  attractions for the composer. It is commonly believed that the tortured and forbidden relationship between Manfred and Astarte is a reflection of Byron's relationship with his half sister Augusta Leigh, and that the idea of forbidden sexuality might have had its attractions for Tchaikovsky. Simplistic, perhaps, but definitely an intriguing idea.

Premiered in 1886, the symphony received mixed reviews and Tchaikovsky came to be dissatisfied with it. In the programme book, Warwick Thompson's illuminating article includes discussion with Semyon Bychkov who explains his championing of the work and why, for him it works.  Certainly, this recording is superbly convincing and Bychkov gets a superb sense of romantic sweep and narrative drama from the orchestra. Time and again we can not only appreciate the playing but the way they bring out the best in Tchaikovsky's dramatic writing.

The opening movement, where we first meet Manfred and his beloved Astarte, is full of sweep and drama. The orchestra makes a flexible sound, fluid and powerful and there is a strong sense of narrative drama to Bychkov's pacing of the piece. Time and again I was minded of the story-telling aspect which is a great strength of Tchaikovsky's ballets, and certainly the piece could not but be by Tchaikovsky. In the second movement, the scherzo, we have Manfred encountering a waterfall sprite in the Alps,  and there is a real dazzle to the playing in the opening section. Later lyrical sections have a lovely delicacy and transparency to them, but there is passion too, the two weaving in and out of each other.

In the third movement, outcast Manfred looks with despair on the happy lives of simple mountain folk.  Bychkov makes this movement really graceful, yet still with a richly romantic feel to the drama. Finally we have Manfred's appearance at an infernal orgy, followed by the appearance of Astarte and her pardoning him. Bychkov makes this vividly dramatic, creating a terrific sense of drama and vigour in the movement. Like many others, I am not convinced by Tchaikovsky's decision to write the bacchanale/orgy as a fugue, but Bychkov makes us believe in the moment.

The sound is superb, and this is a recording which really cries out to played loudly when the neighbours are out. Bychkov's achievement with the Czech Philharmonic is that they bring out all of Tchaikovsky's seductive textures without losing a sense of propulsive drama.

Piotr Illych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - Manfred Symphony
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)
Recorded Dvorak Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 24-27 April 2017
DECCA 483 2320 1CD [59.19]
Available from Amazon.

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