TCHAIKOVSKY: Manfred Symphoony, Op. 58.

by Walter Simmons

TCHAIKOVSKY: Manfred Symphony, Op. 58. Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the London Sym­phony Orchestra. CBS MASTERWORKS MK-36673 [ADD]; 55:20. Produced by Steven Epstein.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Manfred Symphony, Op, 58. Riccardo Chailly conducts the Concertgebouw Orche­stra, Amsterdam. LONDON 421 441-2 [DDD]; 55:37. Produced by Paul Myers.

Classical symphonic form was ill-suited to Tchaikovsky’s concrete, impulsive, and spontaneous creative temperament, although repeatedly he succumbed to the temptation. Each of his efforts, though appealing on many levels, is draped over the skeleton of symphonic structure like poorly fitting clothes, spliced and held in place by blatantly obvious ligatures. Much better suited to his personality was the symphonic poem, whose dramatic and psychological underpinnings stimulated and freed his gift for emotional characterization of gripping immediacy. Thus a work like Manfred, a symphonic poem in four movements, was an ideal medium for the composer, giving him a broad canvas on which to depict the various aspects of the tortured Romantic hero, while offering him a rich opportunity to display many facets of his own unique if idiosyncratic artistry.

Composed in 1885, between his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, Manfred is arguably Tchai­kovsky’s greatest and most ambitious symphonic work. The opening movement is a rather episodic psycho-emotional portrait of the protagonist. However, the choppy effect of its sectional design is mitigated by some of the most vehemently visceral music the composer ever created—music of such intense despair that even Tchaikovsky was pushed to his expressive limits. The second movement—a scherzo of Mendelssohnian airiness and lightness—provides a striking contrast. The third movement is a gentle pastorale that contains some of Manfred’s loveliest moments, in the rich, freely flowing vein that Tchaikovsky was able to produce with the appearance of total ease and naturalness. Both inner movements display a kinship to the composer’s ballet music. The finale is unquestionably the most problematical portion of the work and probably accounts for its relative infrequency of performance. It is quite long, with a formal structure that is episodic in the extreme and synthetic on most every level. Eventually, it stumbles into—to say “culminates in” would suggest more structural or emotional continuity than is apparent—a solemn processional that is utterly unprepared and unjustified, in addition to being thoroughly banal. Nevertheless, this movement does contain some tremendously exciting music, although its Russian peasant-dance quality is hard to explain. But performed with unflinching conviction, it can generate a level of intensity capable of concealing some of its weaknesses.

In attempting to salvage this movement, conductors have taken a number of editorial liberties. Two come to mind: Toscanini used to cut out a hefty chunk, eliminating much of the muddled groping, but also sacrificing a fugato that holds some interest as a curiosity. On the whole, though, this abridgement made the movement much more manageable. I also recall a performance, conducted by William Steinberg if I am not mistaken, in which the anguished conclusion of the first movement reappeared at the very end of the finale. Eliminating the absurd processional does strengthen the movement, though it also creates some redundancy while altering the dramatic meaning of the work entirely. Of course, today’s preference for textual authenticity discourages conductors from making this sort of modification.

Both its structural weaknesses and its expressive extremism make Manfred a difficult work to render successfully. Very few recordings—and I have heard many—have represented the work advantageously, and, not surprisingly, neither of the two under current discussion is without its shortcomings. On the whole, Thomas and the LSO offer a better performance: more impassioned and committed, with a driving intensity in the finale that enables that movement to hold its own. The weak spots in the performance are the middle movements, which are earthbound and perfunctory. The recording, which dates from 1979, exhibits a tubby, confined quality, detracting somewhat from the overall effect.

Chailly and the Concertgebouw, on the other hand, benefit from an extremely fine sonic ambience characterized by brilliant clarity and solid bass. Orchestral execution is excellent: ensemble is taut and solos are refined. The scherzo is a crisp tour-de-force—the finest rendition of this movement I have heard. However, the emotional extravagance of the outer movements is so suppressed and overcontrolled that the final result is tame and unconvincing. In a work like this, that is fatal.

Much the same can be said about Riccardo Muti’s neat, clean performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI CDC-7 47412 2), which is surprisingly similar to Chailly’s. In fact, the chief difference is that while the scherzo is the high point of Chailly’s reading, it is the third movement that soars above the others in Muti’s hands. (If one could splice these respective middle movements into Thomas’ performance, then one would have something.)

There is one other CD version of Manfred listed in Schwann: Maurice Abravanel’s with the Utah Symphony Orchestra, part of the budget-priced Vox Prima series. While orchestral playing and sound quality are not at the level of the other renditions discussed here, the reader might be surprised to learn that they are not far behind. And Abravanel supplies a power and intensity missing from the readings of both Chailly and Muti. This is not a version to dismiss out of hand.

In closing, let me note that perhaps the most successful performance of Manfred ever released on records is a blazing rendition featuring the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. This was available at one time on Victrola VICS-1315, but is currently out of print. However, Mortimer Frank informs me that a live performance from 1953—not quite up to the level of the aforementioned reading—can be found on a CD entitled Toscanini conducts Tchaikovsky, available from Music and Arts Programs in Berkeley, CA.