Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony; Marche Slave

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Orfeo
WORKS: Manfred Symphony; Marche Slave
PERFORMER: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
CATALOGUE NO: C 895 151 A

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Andris Nelsons is leaving the CBSO for Boston this year, having been the orchestra’s music director since 2008. In my view, the orchestra has scarcely played better since Simon Rattle’s departure than under Nelsons’s baton, and its status as a world-class orchestra has been enhanced by its Tchaikovsky recordings, of which this fine CD is the latest.

Marche Slave can appear as one of Tchaikovsky’s more sombre occasional pieces. Not here. Andris Nelsons begins in suitably subdued style, building to a stern climax, but then unexpectedly allows the music to smile with the first woodwind episode, perkily played by his Birmingham musicians. The result is both uplifting and, by the piece’s end, more than usually exhilarating. All this is captured in the best possible CD sound, whetting one’s appetite for the main item on this programme.

Based on Lord Byron’s semi-autobiographical poem, Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony was composed in 1885, some seven years after his fate-obsessed Fourth Symphony and three years before his Fifth. After his disastrous and traumatic bid for heterosexual marriage, Tchaikovsky evidently felt empathy with Byron’s ostracised hero and thus penned one of his most heart-felt and richly imaginative works, only compromised in the finale by a conventional ‘redemptive’ resolution (organ to the fore) which has no basis in Byron’s narrative.

Every detail of Tchaikovsky’s intricate and inventive score is captured in this live recording made in Symphony Hall’s superb acoustic, with the CBSO players on top of their game. This is, more importantly, a fine performance which encompasses the work’s Wagnerian-style doom of the opening, realises the tenderness of the string theme portraying Manfred’s beloved Astarte, the playful evanescence of the waterfall-evoking scherzo, and does full justice to the initially serene third movement pastoral. Nelsons’s attention to detail is evident even here, as he takes that movement at Tchaikovsky’s Andante con moto rather than the more leisurely tempo favoured by many other conductors; and his handling of the reappearance of the ‘doom’ motif within this idyllic landscape is unusual but effective: rather than presenting it with portentous gloom as do other conductors, he brings out the preceding music’s turbulent character, making the motif’s matter-of-fact appearance a natural culmination rather than a melodramatic disturbance. And Nelsons conducts the finale with such conviction that its disparate ideas come across as powerful, magnificent fragments rather than merely an incoherent succession of non sequiturs; even the usually problematic fugue here evokes the hectic and fruitless mundane activity which disgusts the hero. Superb.

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Daniel Jaffé