Manfred Symphony the Voyevoda
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Written between the fourth and fifth symphonies, Tchaikovsky' programmatic Manfred Symphony, inspired by Byron' dramatic poem of the same name, contains some of the composer' most thrillingly orchestrated music and best tunes. For Tchaikovsky, as for
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Musicologically it is strictly not regarded as a symphony as it does not employ sonata form in its structure. But then the same could be said about a number of modern symphonies. To the listener, it looks like a symphony, and sounds like a symphony, even though it is written to the story of an epic poem, making it also a tone poem. For years I have been seeking my ideal performance of this work, a work that is possibly more technically demanding than any of the numbered symphonies. Although over the decades, it has been pushed in the background, given a receptive hearing, it emerges as among his most rewarding works.
There is no need for me to go into the musical sequence of the work, as another reviewer has done this quite thoroughly already. But before commenting as to why I regard this the best recording available, I must do what is not quite the right thing to do, and comment on other reviews.
It takes a little intelligence to see that the two star review really contributes nothing: the reviewer may have listened to much music, but appears to have gained little knowledge or understanding in the process. But I must comment on the sound of this recording, after the critical comments made elsewhere. I have been a practising musician, both conducting (amateur) and playing the piano, as well as regularly attending concerts for many years. It has always been important to me that my sound equipment used should give me as close a representation of the true sound of a performance as possible. Which has led me to invest $20,000 in a carefully chosen sound system. And on this basis, I can comment that I was very impressed with the sound quality of this release. I find no sense of the curtain between orchestra and listener, and was so impressed with the quality of sound that I wondered if Naxos had used 24-bit recording in this case. But, on comparison with known good 24-bit recordings, I believe this is probably just a good example of standard specifications used for the recording. To come out of the stratosphere, I also listened to the CD on a system costing just under $1,000 - but one chosen very carefully. My impressions of the sound quality remained the same. The recording is not given ultra-close microphone placement, a technique sometimes used to provide a greater sense of spectacle to the sound. To me the placement is ideal, giving clarity to solo playing, but good blend to ensemble sections in the music. That said, on to the performance.
The work, being based on Byron's poem which is dramatic yet reflecting a psychologically almost schizophrenic nature, is highly contrasted, demanding playing ranging from extreme delicacy and beauty, to intense dramatic power. At the same time, it should reflect the Russian qualities in Tchaikovsky's composition. In my rather large collection of performances of this work, that last aspect is often missing, as is adequate consideration of the poem on which it is based.
The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, whilst a very competent body, would not be considered, I think it fair to say, among the very best of the world's Orchestra's. But in this performance, under the hands of Petrenko, they rise to a standard I have never heard from them in the past. In quiet passages, strings take on a subtle beauty, which is also found in the interplays of the woodwind solos and elsewhere. At its full power, and I suspect players have been added to the Orchestra's normal complement, we hear Tchaikovsky at the height of his Russian passion. I must disagree with some minor comments by another reviewer, such as where some slow passages were found to be a little dragging, I found great beauty. In fact the entire performance is marked by its unity of conception, and its realization of the subtleties in the scoring.
Having given close study to those recordings I have acquired of this work over the years in my search for the ideal, I believe that in this case I have found a conductor totally in tune (no pun intended) with the score and its literary background, and an Orchestra that has risen above itself to meet the occasion. I need search for my ideal no longer.
There are probably two relatively modern recordings that offer serious competition. The Jurowski recording with the LPO is beautifully played, but I find the conductor loses the pulse of the music from time to time, and some quiet passages, rather than emerging as beautiful examples of Tchaikovsky's writing, to me are soporific. The recording also has a slightly reduced dynamic range compared to the one under review. The closest competition comes from Pletnev. This is certainly a wonderful performance, but I feel it is no better than the present one, and has more constricted sound with some slight sonic artefacts.
So after many recordings and years of searching, I have no hesitation in giving this recording a well-earned five-star rating and hope it is the source for others discovering the greatness of one of Tchaikovsky's more neglected treasures. And the rarely-heard "Voyevoda" is a well-played excellent fill.
That Manfred night, I boo-hoo-d from the moment the symphony ended, through driving myself home, and once home through trying to explain to my husband and myself what had happened to me. That is how much I was struck by this piece and the fantastic performance that was seared into my brain. And now this wonderful performance caught me in the opening phrases and held me fast until the end. It is a powerful experience.
I'm looking forward to more from Mr. Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Symphony and I am so happy to know that my treasured experience years ago was not just my imaginings. I just needed the right-for-me conductor and this is it. From the professional reviews I have read, I know I am far from alone in finding this special.
I found this to be a totally exciting, well-recorded performance of the Manfred Symphony. The climaxes are thrilling and the dramatoic parts are, well . . . dramatic.
Pay no attention to the sour Santa Fe critic. You'll love it!
I wonder why it has fallen into comparative disfavour; if any recording could revive interest it is this one. Petrenko does it again with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, making them sound like a world class orchestra, just as he has now done in several recordings. If I lived in or near Liverpool I would jump at every chance to hear them. The strings sound rich and full, the woodwind retain a pleasing rasp in late Romantic repertoire, and the sound provided by Naxos - surely 24 bit - is absolutely gripping in its warmth and immediacy. Try the entry of the organ at 17'24" for thrills; it in no way diminishes the sonorousness of the orchestra but just lifts everything on to a higher sonic plane - stunning.
Petrenko's conducting holds an essentially disparate piece together; he obviously loves the piece and his enthusiasm infects his players. The provision as a bonus of the equally rarely heard "Voyevoda" is very welcome; it is another arch-Romantic composition which often anticipates Sibelius in his most energised and liberated mode.
Petrenko generally takes a moderate, even low-key approach to Manfred's roiling melodrama, which is true of Jurowski as well. The first movement is more poetic than in Toscanini's searing accounts (there are two, both mono, taken from concert performances in dodgy sound), which isn't a fault since no one has really rivaled Toscanini for lighting a fire under this music. I vastly admire Petrenko, but here the two inner movements are indifferently done, the second in particular making little impression, while the elegiac third needs more atmosphere and romantic longing.
After a low-key opening, the first movement takes flight, showing Petrenko's mettle; he whips up the excitement but also holds the movement together very well. The finale is always a bugbear in Manfred performances. Toscanini cut out a tediously academic section, while Svetlanov among others substitutes the heroic Manfred theme for the down-beat ending written by the composer. Petrenko aims to be rousing without bombast, and he pulls it off, although I was aware in the grander passages that the orchestra sounds a bit thin. They are certainly eager, which counts for a lot.
The Voyevoda is a "symphonic ballad" based on a Pushkin translation of a ballad about a provincial governor The story is essentially unknown in the West, although it is familiar enough in Russia that various composers have written music for it - Tchaikovsky's Op. 3 was an opera by the same name that he later destroyed. But this toe poem dates to 1891, representing the composer at his most mature. Somehow things didn't work out; he was dissatisfied with the results himself. Few conductors outside Russia have recorded it - I was impressed by a version led by Frank Shipway.
It's a discursive work that is half-felt from a composer who typically spills over with emotion, and the gunshot report at the end, leading to a very abrupt close, is strange. The melodies aren't especially memorable, but I don't think Voyevoda deserves to be called "rubbish" by the composer. It ebbs and flows much like "The Tempest" and other of his fringe orchestral works. Petrenko sets a faster pace than Shipway (or Abbado with the Chicago Sym.) and is generally more passionate throughout, although both are superb readings, but the Petrenko makes you sit up and take notice. Suddenly this sounds like top-drawer Tchaikovsky. .