Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony (SACD review)

Dmitrij Kitajenko, Gurzenich Orchestra, Koln. Oehms Classics OC 665.

Lord Byron published his dramatic poem Manfred in 1817, and since then several composers including Robert Schumann in 1849 and Peter Tchaikovsky in 1885 have set it to music. The poem is typical of the extravagant Romanticism of the young Byron, all about a tortured hero bedeviled by guilt over a mysterious affair with his half-sister Astarte, fleeing into the surrounding Alpine countryside, calling upon supernatural forces to free him of his pain, and then, tormented, rejected, downcast, and unable to forgive or forget but defiant to the end, finally dying unredeemed. How's that for melodrama?

In the case of Tchaikovsky, he was reluctant at first to set it to music. He felt Schumann had already done it well enough, and there was nothing more he could add. Besides, he was not too keen on doing any more programmatic music, music that told a story or described a scene, despite the success of his Romeo and Juliet and Tempest overtures and Swan Lake ballet some years earlier. Go figure. Still, at the urging of friends and after a visit to the Alpine regions where Byron laid out the story, he proceeded, anyway. When he completed the Manfred Symphony, he hailed it as one of his best works. Then, after its lukewarm public and critical reception, he practically disowned it, saying only the first movement was any good. An artist's temperamental disposition, maybe, or just a reaction to apparent disapproval? Fortunately, the work survived (as did Tchaikovsky's interest in literary subjects, his doing a Hamlet overture a couple of years later as well as the Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker ballets).

Maestro Dmitrij Kitajenko and the Gurzenich Orchestra, Koln, do their best to prove Tchaikovsky's assessment of the Manfred Symphony mistaken. In the first movement, marked Lento lugubre, Kitajenko builds a bewitching sense of mystery and shrouded involvement, the hero's theme describing Manfred as a sullen, brooding character. It's dark and shadowy, opening out into a seriously dramatic outburst after a lengthy introduction.

This is admittedly an odd symphony, a combination of straight-out tone painting and old-fashioned storytelling, with a happier ending than Byron gave his hero and set within a symphonic musical structure. Kitajenko does well just to hold it together.

After a rather histrionic close to the first movement, the relatively light, airy Scherzo, depicting an Alpine fairy, seems curiously out of place. I mean, we're almost in Tchaikovsky ballet territory here. Nevertheless, it is certainly entertaining enough, and again Kitajenko seems to be having fun with the music.

A slow movement follows, conjuring up a picture of Alpine village life. It is mostly lilting, rhythmic, and tranquil, a calm before the closing bacchanal.

The Allegro finale, the longest and most variegated movement by far, brings the work full circle, containing some of the symphony's most-memorable tunes. Here, Kitajenko could have perhaps whipped up even more energy, but his relative restraint helps maintain the overall equilibrium of the piece. This is a well-thought-out interpretation, the composer's often scattershot contrasts well integrated into a coherent whole.

Oehms Classics present the 2009 recording on a hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD, playable on any CD, DVD, or Super Audio CD player. I listened in two-channel stereo using a Sony SACD player and found the results most pleasing. The engineers appear to have miked the orchestra fairly close up, yet not so close that the music sounds compartmentalized, overbright, or edgy as can sometimes happen under these conditions. There are strong dynamics and impact involved, with on occasion a few really strong jolts from the ensemble; a reasonably decent sense of stage depth; and a fine, delicate, extended high end. What's more, the sound emerges well balanced and ultrasmooth, at times a touch too smooth but making for comfortable listening. While I thought I heard some audience noise between movements, indicating that Oehms may have recorded the music live, there is no mention of it on or in the packaging.

So, does this new performance of the Manfred Symphony displace my old favorites from Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI) or Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos)? Although not quite, it comes close, and the vigorous, effortless sound is surely persuasive.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa