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 Recording of the Week  Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony

Written between his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is the only programmatic one he wrote, and the only completed one that is unnumbered. It requires a very large orchestra (including triple wind, two harps, a large percussion section and organ) and is about an hour long. I suppose it is not surprising therefore that you only rarely see it performed in concerts. There are however plenty of fine recordings available and the inspiration behind this week’s newsletter is an outstanding new one recently released on budget label Naxos performed by The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under their principal conductor Vasily Petrenko.

Vasily Petrenko
Vasily Petrenko

Tchaikovsky’s work is based on the poem ‘Manfred’ written by Lord Byron in 1817. The works of Byron were still popular in Russia in the 1860s and 70s and the visit of French composer Hector Berlioz in 1867 performing his own program symphony Harold en Italie seems to have intrigued and inspired a number of Russian composers, among them Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky. It was however another eighteen years - and only after consistent nagging by fellow Russian composer Mily Balakirev – before Tchaikovsky finally got round to writing the Manfred Symphony.

Initially, he considered it to be one of his best compositions, but after a few years had changed his mind and apparently wanted to destroy the score. Thankfully this intention was never carried out, but it is interesting that this love or hate attitude towards the work seems to have carried forward into further generations as well. Toscanini for example considered it the composer’s greatest composition (although this did not stop him making numerous changes and cuts to the score when he performed and recorded it), yet Bernstein apparently referred to it as “trash” and never recorded it.

This new recording on Naxos finds Petrenko and an RLPO on top form. He clearly has a deep understanding of the Russian orchestral sound required for performing this music, with lush - but never over-sentimental - string playing, bright and characterful woodwinds, and a full - but not overpowering - brass section. This combined with his levelheaded approach to the score and careful attention to well-balanced textures make for a winning combination. Very highly recommended.

Tchaikovsky - Manfred Symphony

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC