Revealing Tchaikovsky – Manfred

Manfred, Op.115 – Overture
Cello Concerto No.2, Op.126
Manfred – Symphony in B minor after Byron, Op.58

Mario Brunello (cello)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 5 November, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vladimir Jurowski. Photograph: Sheila RockThe “Revealing Tchaikovsky” festival has deliberately eschewed much of the composer’s popular output, focussing instead on the qualities of so-called ‘lesser’ works. In choosing the Manfred Symphony Vladimir Jurowski opted for a work barely performed until the last two decades, during which it has also enjoyed far greater profile on disc, including a recording from Jurowski and the LPO on its own label.

The case for Manfred as a symphony rather than a collection of tone poems is strong – more so than, say, Sibelius’s Four Lemminkäinen Legends, of which precursors could be heard in this performance. In Jurowski’s hands the symphonic drama was tautly argued, the themes clearly projected, and the violins in particular forceful and darkly coloured.

The LPO string tone had remarkable depth here, in contrast to the ‘Astarte’ theme, where muted violins secured an empty gracefulness. Yet with the climax of the movement came a terrific wall of sound, fully sonorous wind and brass choirs given extra bite by snappy percussion, emphasising Tchaikovsky’s off beat tendencies where appropriate. The tension from here to the closing bars of the first movement was white hot, Jurowski, as is his style, securing remarkable clarity through the most subtle of gestures.

Throughout the work runs a strong sense of the outdoors, emphasised in the third movement. After Manfred’s portentous interruption of a relative pastoral calm, this resumed as an Intermezzo, charming woodwind melodies and broad string lines all nicely done. And while the scherzo was perhaps too fleet of foot at the outset, it tripped along with its feathery flute solo until Tchaikovsky’s wonderful depiction of the waterfall, where the orchestral textures really sparkled.

The thematic unity at the end, asserted in a Franckian manner with the symphony’s principal themes, was hugely satisfying and powerful, the assured fugue prefaced by a very deliberate but idiomatic rallentando, while the Royal Festival Hall organ’s brief intervention with a quote from Gounod’s “Ave Maria” setting was ideally balanced.

Countering this wonderfully alive performance was the overture to Robert Schumann’s incidental music on the subject of Lord Byron’s hero, a source of intimidation to Tchaikovsky as he pondered his symphony’s composition. Full of tension and foreboding, this performance played on unresolved melodic dissonance, coming to rest only in the final bars but even then hanging on grimly in the minor key. The Allegro surged forward purposefully, however, contrasting with plangent woodwind in the slower passages.

Mario BrunelloContrasting with these Romantic interpretations of literature was the sparse yet striking soundworld of Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, retaining the air of tension felt in the Schumann as the cello and murky lower strings evoked a real sense of dread.

Mario Brunello added a few stylistic touches of his own, with mostly well-judged portamento, though his wafer-thin double-stopped notes early on were not always in tune. The sound in the second movement was gritty rather than appealing, as the composer’s writing would suggest, with the contrabassoon revealed as the source of an odd, gurgling accompaniment. Shrill woodwind progressively dominated, superbly judged in tandem with taut percussion, with Brunello opting not to take this movement by the scruff of the neck.

While the finale palpably leaves the horrors of this fast music, its oft-returning upward sweep to the cello’s high register tended to be prefaced by a rather rushed take on Shostakovich’s march theme. The threatening shrill tutti, those horrifying woodwind shrieks returning, was expertly marshalled by Jurowski, before the strange percussive ticking faded to nothingness, albeit without the slight sense of playfulness you sense Shostakovich would have liked in the cello part.

To provide an encore for such a quizzical closing passage is a brave move indeed, though Brunello chose well in a poised and affectionate performance of the two ‘Bourrées’ from J. S. Bach’s C major Suite for unaccompanied cello (BWV1009).

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