Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony

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COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Virgin Classics
WORKS: Manfred Symphony
PERFORMER: Bournemouth SO/Andrew Litton
The last three Tchaikovsky symphonies have always been a parade-ground for the wildest eccentricities, and there are times when Temirkanov joins the front rank of transgressors. Not that his mighty predecessor at the St Petersburg Philharmonic, Yevgeny Mravinsky, was quite the model of Classical taste in this music. The difference is that he sped where Temirkanov loves to linger.


Unfortunately, the first creative touch here is the worst – a doom-fanfare for the Fourth that stretches the St Petersburg brass beyond the call of duty. Yet the opening of the Fifth is something else, confirming Temirkanov and his orchestra as masters of dark atmosphere, and a very slow Andante cantabile comes straight from the heart.

The recording isn’t instantly easy to like. It reflects the slightly dry but very truthful acoustics of the wonderful 1830s’ hall in which the orchestra lives and breathes. But you soon realise with remarkable vividness how the warmth comes from within the playing. Recent depletion seems to have made no difference to the rich and infinitely adaptable string sound, still capable of the softest whisper and the greatest force. In the Pathétique Temirkanov asks for sustained inspiration and gets it.


At the Proms he wilfully stripped the Manfred Symphony’s finale of its organ-crowned, Faustian-flavoured happy ending. That false seraphic note to the Byronic hero’s wanderings is there, as it has to be, on Andrew Litton’s recording, and it doesn’t quite obliterate admiration for focused, precise work on Tchaikovsky’s most imaginatively scored symphony. Litton has done sterling work with the Bournemouth strings, and it shows both in the first-movement vision and the Scherzo’s fantasy. But there’s no disguising that at full throttle this isn’t quite the definitive, craggy Manfred article. Perhaps listening with the St Petersburg sound still very much in mind was a mistake. David Nice