Notes and Editorial Reviews
Vladimir Jurowski created a sensation when he conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in a powerhouse performance of Manfred last year. Much of the excitement was undoubtedly caused by Jurowski’s charismatic conducting, but there was also, for many people, the rare sense of discovery of an amazing but rarely heard masterpiece by the most popular composer on the planet. At that time, I remember hoping that he would record it, and speculating whether any recording could reproduce the electricity of that concert. Well, here it is—a live recording, but with the London Philharmonic Orchestra rather than the Philadelphia Orchestra. Manfred has been recorded many times, but there have been only two great recorded performances in the last
half-century. Arturo Toscanini’s mono interpretation in the early 1950s has no peer as a performance, but it incorporates a major cut in the fourth movement. Riccardo Muti’s 1981 version with the Philharmonia Orchestra was recorded in Kingsway Hall, virtually guaranteeing excellent sound, but it is, to my knowledge, only available now in the Brilliant Classics box set of Muti’s sensational complete Tchaikovsky symphonies.
Jurowski’s first movement is competitive with anyone. He chooses just the right tempo and tone in the dark initial exposition of Manfred’s two themes, and develops them into an impressive climax. Manfred’s reminiscences of Astarte are taken slowly, emphasizing both his longing and guilt over his incestuous affair. The first movement finale is overwhelming, but no one is likely ever to rival Toscanini’s thunderclap timpani at the recapitulation of Manfred’s first theme. The second movement is swift and light, and the central reappearance of Manfred’s theme is suitably threatening. The Alpine Fairy’s effervescent melody is a bit too square, and misses the balletic lightness that Muti captures at a similarly fast tempo. Again, in the third movement, Jurowski is just a little too rigid and sober for this pastoral interlude. Jurowski plays the opening bacchanal of the fourth movement at a hair-raising speed that works well, and heightens the contrast with the subsequent interlude featuring Manfred’s anguished second theme. The following fugue has never been done with more power and passion. The final climax goes splendidly. As with Muti, the recording doesn’t mess up the organ, which makes it clear that Manfred’s first theme is a variation on the Dies irae.
The sound is appropriately dark in color and provides plenty of dynamic range and punch, but the orchestral soundstage is a little lacking in width, depth, and air. The sonic signature is clearly digital in the negative sense. It is a shame that Jurowski didn’t record this on SACD (with PentaTone). So, how does this recording compare to that concert and the recorded competition? Needless to say, the frisson of the concert has not been duplicated, largely because of the sound and the fact that the London Philharmonic Orchestra is not the Philadelphia Orchestra, especially in the music of Tchaikovsky. There is no question about Jurowski’s commitment to Manfred. His speed and intensity could work against the overall tone of the work, but also help for those who feel that Manfred is too long and episodic. Neither Muti nor Jurowski generate Toscanini’s level of drama and tension, but that recording is not widely available now and doesn’t have modern stereo sound. Muti may be marginally preferable to Jurowski in terms of flexibility of tempo, but the two performances are different enough to justify owning both if you are one of those people who feel that Manfred is unique among Tchaikovsky’s major works. There are now three great recordings of Manfred.
FANFARE: Arthur Lintgen
Works on This Recording
Manfred Symphony in B minor, Op. 58 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Date of Recording: 12/08/2004
Venue: Live Royal Festival Hall, London, England
Length: 58 Minutes 8 Secs.
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