Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony / Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra

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TCHAIKOVSKY Manfred Symphony Mikhail Pletnev, cond; Russian Natl O PENTATONE 5186387 (SACD: 59:29)

Arrival of this release in the same shipment that also brought me Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 7 and Piano Concerto No. 3 with Dmitri Kitaenko and the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra on Oehms (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) is kind of funny in a way. You see, Mikhail Pletnev and Kitaenko have played a game of leapfrog through Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, contending not only against each other, but also against Christoph Poppen and Vladimir Jurowski in a four-way competition. After they all crossed the finish line, I judged Pletnev and Kitaenko the tied winners.

The part of this that’s funny, to me at least, is that as if not to be outdone by the other, each of these two conductors has followed up their symphony cycles with what might be described as a mop-up operation. Kitaenko already had a Manfred Symphony in the catalog with his Cologne orchestra; in fact, he recorded it in March 2009, even before taking up the standard six symphonies. So, there was nothing left for him to do but turn to the cobbled-together score by Sergei Bogatyryev of an abandoned seventh symphony by Tchaikovsky and the closely related concertante piano work the composer derived from those same rejected symphony sketches, which came to be designated the Piano Concerto No. 3

Pletnev, too, had a Manfred already under his belt and with the same Russian National Orchestra as here, but it dated back to 1993 and was part of his previous Tchaikovsky symphony cycle for Deutsche Grammophon, so it was time for a remake to complement his SACD cycle for PentaTone. It remains to be seen whether Pletnev will give us a performance of Bogatyryev’s reconstructed Seventh Symphony in order to have the last word, or, in this case, the last note.

Tchaikovsky was the not the first composer inspired by Lord Byron’s Manfred , a dramatic poem with overtones of the supernatural and undertones of a Gothic English horror, a genre that has been described as “Romantic closet drama.” Robert Schumann composed his Manfred: Dramatic Poem with Music in Three Parts in 1852. But Tchaikovsky’s “inspiration,” if you can call it that, didn’t come spontaneously; he was pressed into service by Mily Balakirev, nominal leader of the “Mighty Five.”

Literary critic Vladimir Stasov had penned a program in 1868, which he thought suitable for a musical setting and sent it to Balakirev, hoping the respected Russian composer would rise to the challenge. But Balakirev declined and forwarded Stasov’s program on to Berlioz, who’d already had success with Harold in Italy , another Byron-inspired work, based on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage . But Berlioz deferred as well, sending the program back to Balakirev with a note pleading old age—he was only 49 at the time—as his excuse.

No one, it seemed was interested in Stasov’s idea, and so for over 15 years it sat and gathered dust, until Balakirev finally prevailed on Tchaikovsky to take it up. Whether or not the project appealed to him, Tchaikovsky set to work on it in earnest, completing the score in 1885, which places it chronologically between his Fourth (1877) and Fifth (1888) symphonies. Manfred contains some of Tchaikovsky’s best music, but it has long existed in a kind of Limbo between symphony and symphonic tone poem. The composer himself recognized the hybrid nature of the work; and even though it’s structured in four movements that correspond to the layout of a typical Classical-Romantic symphony, he purposely avoided assigning it a number.

Over the years, there have been some iconic recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony and some great ones too, the two not necessarily being the same thing. Toscanini’s 1949 RCA recording with the NBC Orchestra from Carnegie Hall, for example, is an iconic one due to the name and fame of the conductor; but unless you’re willing to accept a performance with some cuts and one which, in my opinion, is sort of glossed over, it’s not a reading I’d personally characterize as one of the greats. A somewhat later recording, but still in mono, that I would call one of the greats, is the 1957 Constantin Silvestri performance with the National Orchestra of France, an emotionally charged reading which, sans cuts and less frantic tempos, runs some 10 minutes longer than the Toscanini.

Venturing into the stereo era, there are fine, if perhaps neither iconic nor great, performances by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Paul Kletzki and the Philharmonia, and Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra.

More recently, Vasily Petrenko has given us a brilliant Manfred with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on Naxos, and of course there’s the aforementioned Kitaenko Manfred with which the conductor kicked off his Tchaikovsky cycle. It received mixed reviews in 34:2 from both Arthur Lintgen and Raymond Tuttle.

Pletnev’s earlier Manfred , cited above, is not as good, either as a performance or a recording, as this new remake for PentaTone, so the most likely candidate, I think, to compare it to is the Petrenko, which received a rave review from Lynn René Bayley in 32:4, and a somewhat cooler reception from Arthur Lintgen in that same issue.

One immediate strike against this new release is that neither Pletnev nor PentaTone saw fit to include a filler. The disc is just shy of 60 minutes, which isn’t short, but Petrenko and Naxos included Tchaikovsky’s tone poem The Voyevoda , and I might add, for half the price of the PentaTone; but then the latter has the advantage of being an SACD, which does much to enhance the listening experience in a such a heavily and colorfully orchestrated score.

Right from the heavily accented marcato eighth-notes in the strings, beginning in the second bar, Pletnev introduces us to a Manfred tortured, sullen, and precognitive of the fiendish fate that awaits his arrival in the infernal bacchanal of the finale. Tchaikovsky pulled out all the stops and poured everything he had into what the insert note labels an “elemental portrait of the soul and kitschy transfiguration.”

Pletnev’s reading is as wild and wound-up as any I’ve heard, but there’s also a pall of gloom and doom hanging over it that adds to the sense of implacable Fate and tragedy, even if the protagonist of the story is a bit of an insufferably self-absorbed anti-hero. There are those who say that Tchaikovsky ruined the work by ending it with those tacky B-Major strains on organ—“the matter of taste here leads to hearty discussions,” as the booklet note puts it. But I say that Tchaikovsky knew the central character of the story well and provided him with a fittingly superficial sendoff.

It’s too soon to call Pletnev’s Manfred “iconic,” but I don’t think it’s too soon to call it one of the greats. Very strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: PTC5186387

  • UPC: 827949038761

  • Label: Pentatone

  • Composer: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

  • Conductor: Mikhail Pletnev

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Russian National Orchestra