Tchaikovsky Trimmed – 7 October

Mussorgsky orch. Rimsky-Korsakov
Khovanshchina – Prelude
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1
Manfred – Symphony in B minor, Op.58

Nikolai Demidenko (piano)

Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio
Vladimir Fedoseyev

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 October, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The problem with Manfred has nothing to do with the music itself – which is one of Tchaikovsky’s most inventive, sophisticated and complex scores. It’s how the conductor presents it. Will Tchaikovsky’s original wishes be honoured or will it be the bastardised version, of which there seems more than one? Sadly, Fedoseyev played the ridiculous 10-minute finale that loses the fugal section, the organ-led apotheosis and the redemptive final bars – some of the most moving music in the symphony. The sublime close was here replaced by the fierce music that completes the first movement, which makes a nonsense of the narrative and effectively wrecks Tchaikovsky’s grand design (to say nothing about being at-odds with the programme note).

Is it not possible to have a word in advance with performers when editorial questions exist? The same is true with Khovanshchina. Will it be either the Rimsky-Korsakov or Shostakovich orchestration? (Or, even, that by Bastiaan Blomhert?) As indicated, it was Rimsky’s – but you had to know in order to know! Memorably done too, Fedoseyev, with the broadest of speeds, conjuring the mist and ice of a Moscow dawn, the music phrased and coloured innately, an impressive depth of string sound and expressive, fruity-toned wind and brass immediately establishing the re-branded Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra’s character.

In Manfred one can express regret that Fedoseyev (the orchestra’s conductor for 30 years now) chose to use a corrupt version – even more so when he actually conducted a marvellous performance. The first three movements were thrillingly done – vibrant, overtly emotional and, where required, quietly eloquent and teasing. Astarte’s theme could not have been more movingly turned or half-lit; and the way Fedoseyev delayed (seemingly for an eternity) and then fully savoured the ravishing Trio that intercedes the fairy- and waterfall-painted Scherzo (here a model of rhythmic clarity) was compelling in its tantalisation, Fedoseyev avoiding charges of kitsch and showmanship, although I’m not sure he did so with the two bits of Swan Lake played as encores.

While Fedoseyev is not alone in cleaving Manfred – his colleague Temirkanov does similarly and some Western conductors have applied or accepted cuts and changes of orchestration – this rendition, coupled with ’blind’ notes (and a cheering audience indifferent to or ignorant of the finale’s mutilation), simply confirmed that Manfred remains a problem piece. The real pity is that Fedoseyev is such a damn good conductor of it!

There was also something incomplete about the concerto – in the sense that pianist and conductor didn’t seem to be on the same wavelength, Demidenko happy it seemed to go along with Fedoseyev’s expansive conducting. The pianist’s moments of circumspection vied with his moments of delicacy and his moments of powerful declamation. The second movement was a particular highlight, a reverie of rapt contemplation, the orchestra at its most hushed and spectral; in Manfred it showed its raucous side, well meant, authentic even, possibly definitive … but not when corrupted.

This was the first “Classic International” of the season.

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