“The Tchaikovsky Project: Volume II”
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony in B minor, opus 58
Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov (conductor)
Recording: Dvorák Hall, Rudolfinum Studio, Prague, Czech Republic (April 24-27, 2017) – 59’19
Decca 483 2320 – Booklet in English, French, German and German
Critics may have been quick to dismiss the Manfred Symphony since its premiere in 1886. Hasty judgements can render harm in what should, otherwise, be considered a rarefied gem. One such fellow coming to Tchaikovsky’s rescue is Semyon Bychkov. Since completion of his 2015 introductory The Tchaikovsky Project, Volume I, the conductor has taken a 360-degree turn by focusing on this underperformed and underappreciated work; his goal was to challenge such a strongly-felt stigma. Persuasive of a visit is two-faceted: 1) The Czech Philharmonic’s awakening and 2) Semyon Bychkov’s arguments.
Warwick Thompson’s striking commentary is revealing: the orchestra was totally unfamiliar with Manfred prior to the conductor’s enticement of exposing the piece. Trepidation set in at first; however, the corps quickly began to see the beauty and merits of Tchaikovsky’s denigrated work. Furthermore, Mr. Bychkov’s discoveries are substantive, helping assuage the obloquy of this music as being “episodic”, “programmatic” and “repetitive.”
Overplaying a work often ignites preconceived notions. That is why the Czech Philharmonic sharpens Manfred’s imagery through a savvy Bychkov lens. Violins’ soaring lines and horns’ annunciations dig into the soul of Lord Byron’s protagonist, a man writhe with torment. Though the Manfred leitmotif surfaces frequently, it’s made more poignant since revisits are subtly Lilliputian; this is where Semyon Bychkov breathes his own dose of character.
Woodwind arpeggios wonderfully cascade inside introductory clauses of the “Vivace con spirito” with Mr. Bychkov consistently delivering an unflappable tempo. The middle allotment is elevated using melodic lines through entrée of strings, helping to unleash the waterfall sprite. Now, Mr. Bychkov is telling a story, not merely making it sound like a curriculum composition.
Oboe solo gives an instantaneous bucolic respite of slumbering sweetness in the ensuing “Andante con moto.” The 6/8 cadenced legato and background pizzicati pulls us out of Manfred’s doldrums which pervade the interior segments. Tchaikovsky grandeur amiably squelches Manfred’s cerebral counterattacks. The Czech Philharmonic is building a compelling case of acute sensitivity.
Since the Manfred storyline battles between torment and redemption, it’s easy for the piece to land inside the kingdom of kitsch. Maestro Bychkov unabashedly drives that point across. Generally speaking, the conductor succeeds; however, in the liner notes Semyon Bychkov is quoted as saying, “When the organ appears at the end of the symphony, if it is too loud, it can sound corny and unbelievable.” This is where the organ’s apotheosis appears a tad forte. But this final detail doesn’t detract from the CD’s overall likeability and cogency.