Tchaikovsky
Manfred – Symphony in B minor after Byron, Op.58
The Voyevoda, Op.78
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Recorded 20-21 June 2007 in Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
CD No: NAXOS 8.570568
Duration: 69 minutes
Reviewed: October 2008
There have been some fine recordings of Manfred, an underestimated work. I have previously enthused about Vladimir Jurowski's London Philharmonic performance and suggested that it approached Mariss Jansons’s superb Chandos recording with the Oslo Philharmonic, which has been a benchmark for many years (and still is).
Given the similarity in terms of tempo and phrasing between these memorable performances in the slow introduction, it is something of a surprise that Vasily Petrenko's similar view should make such an individual impression. Extremely clear detail, especially within the woodwind section, at once indicates the conductor's intention of bringing out every possible dramatic emphasis, yet not in a weighty or romantic manner.
The opening section has a sense of foreboding similar to that created by Jurowski but Petrenko chooses to underline the switches of orchestral colour. As the tempo quickens a consistent element of this reading becomes evident. I mentioned in my review that Jurowski "chose not to hit the main climaxes with the utmost force", but, by contrast, Petrenko's reading features strength of dynamic contrast. This is aided here by excellent detail with particular attention to Tchaikovsky's surprisingly elaborate use of cymbals.
In the succeeding scherzo it is Jansons rather than Jurowski who is recalled, so incisive is the detail. A sense of controlled haste is evident here – Jurowski achieves this effect by rapid pace, whereas Petrenko's one-minute-slower reading still contrives to create the same effect – remarkable woodwind precision has something to do with it. Petrenko's unsentimental exposition of the Rachmaninov-like trio section is refreshing in its rhythmic firmness.
In all, this is a clear-cut interpretation – the Andante con moto third-movement is ideally unsentimental and the final Allegro con fuoco has admirable sweep. Again the precisely detailed balance assist this approach although it must be said that Jurowski's greater lyricism represents an equally valid view – especially as the matter of inner detail no less carefully attended to – but the overall impression differs.
Except for Tchaikovsky's musing broader sections, Petrenko is intent on creating tension. From the start of the fugue, which arrives a third of the way into the twenty-minute finale, tension is the foundation of the conductor's approach. Slower episodes are not so much a comforting relief as a threatening drawing of breath, even the charming strings and harp episode refuses to bring peace. For the composer to include such moments tends to undermine the symphonic credentials of the music but this introduction of small slow-sections within an ostensibly fast finale challenges the conductor to keep the dramatic temperature high. Toscanini memorably did this in his 1949 recording that has withstood the passing of time remarkably well (we try not to worry about some of his cavalier adjustments to the score). How extravagant of the composer to throw in an organ to enhance the climax of the movement (which peaks a few minutes before the end).
I have long wanted to regard this work as a full-scale Symphony – I can convince myself of this in the first three movements but the fantasy-like finale does not really fit that mould. Nevertheless I suggest that Jansons came close to achieving the impossible and Petrenko here follows suit. He differs from Jurowski whose fine version still has much to offer but the powerful, well-balanced Naxos recording represents another way of revealing the music.
After struggling a little to regard Manfred as an example of symphonic form, The Voyevoda gives no such problem, being a straightforward programmatic symphonic poem (actually subtitled 'Symphonic Ballad). The tense hurrying opening finds Tchaikovsky using his skills of orchestration to the full with delightful instrumental combinations. The recording spreads the winds widely across the stereophonic spectrum and this enhances the originality of the composer's soundworld. Tchaikovsky's is a 'third generation' approach to a strange story. It emerged as a poem by Mickiewicz that was taken up by Pushkin, and this led to Tchaikovsky's musical interpretation.
The listener might do well to ignore the story about the Voyevoda (a provincial governor) who hires an assassin to shoot his wife but the assassin shoots the governor by mistake. Not much sympathy for the Voyevoda then! As so often, here is an example of a programme-inspired piece that makes greater impact when listened to as abstract music rather than being attached to a dramatic background, especially as the clearly-recorded detail and crisply-pointed playing is as splendid here as in Manfred. This rarely performed work is more than a mere fill-up.
Although there are some excellent alternative versions of Manfred (the astonishing LSO/Ahronovitch DG recording from 1977 being among them), the combination of Naxos’s modest price and the bonus of a neglected but remarkable orchestral work could strongly influence the potential buyer.

 

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