After a fair gap, Andris Nelsons’s Tchaikovsky cycle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra continues with Manfred (1884), a work that has come increasingly into its own as its significance within the context of this composer’s Symphonies has been more widely acknowledged.
How the performance takes shape is essentially determined by just how closely it is made to adhere to an underlying symphonic trajectory. Nelsons does not insist on this in the opening movement, so its glowering introduction (superb playing from the woodwinds, as throughout) becomes the initial stage of a process whose explosive culmination makes way, via a restless transition (easy to skim over yet finely rendered here), for an eloquent second subject that yet misses out on the final degree of rapture – fatalistic or otherwise – prior to a suitably implacable coda whose Sibelian anticipations are well to the fore.
After which, the second movement feels just a shade disappointing – Nelsons seeming unsure as how best to gauge its unfolding between scherzo and intermezzo; the outer sections a little effortful in their progress then the winsome ‘trio’ a touch mannered in its phrasing. Nor does the stark reappearance of the fate motto at its climax summon quite the impact necessary, while the textural evanescence of the closing bars is rendered with precision though insufficient poise.
The Andante is the highlight of this account, its pastoral elements deftly inflected so that an overriding pathos is evident behind the whimsy, and a surging emotion as the music assumes more troubled expression in the approach to a return of the motto – its fateful aftermath emphasised by the tolling of bells.
Nelsons strives hard to make the (over-) lengthy finale cohere, and while the ultimate outcome is not appreciably more than the sum of its parts, those latter are often impressive – not least the opening pages with their orgiastic connotations and the fugal build-up later in its course. The allusions back to earlier themes predicate rhetoric over formal continuity such that a cumulative momentum never quite emerges – with the result that the recall of the first movement’s coda seems less than inevitable, while the crowning apotheosis (replete with organ rather than the harmonium specified in the score) audibly fails to overwhelm for all the clarity that Nelsons brings to its chorale textures. The closing bars provide a touchdown whose gentility is not really in keeping with the essence of this piece.
Choice in terms of recordings is not that much less nowadays than for the later Symphonies, with Riccardo Muti’s powerfully conceived and superbly recorded reading high among the front-runners after 35 years. That from Vasily Petrenko (Naxos) is among the best from more recent accounts, while the late ‘symphonic ballad’ The Voyevode makes for a rather more pertinent coupling than the Marche Slave offered by Nelsons – a no-nonsense version as makes it feel more than the pot-boiler it has come to be regarded.
The sound in both works is commendable in spaciousness and focus, if not the best Orfeo has achieved in Symphony Hall, while Tobias Hell’s booklet note is readably informative. This is not the first choice for Manfred, but anyone who has been following the present cycle need not hesitate.