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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Some fine Tchaikovsky from the LPO

Piotr Illych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Manfred, Symphony in Four Scenes after Byron’s Dramatic Poem, Op. 58 (1885) [59:02]

The London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski, conductor

Recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall, London, 8 December 2004.

LPO 0009 [50:02]

Although he initially turned down the project, Tchaikovsky eventually accepted the challenge of composing a symphony based on Byron’s autobiographical poem Manfred, as put forth by the influential Moscow critic Vladimir Stasov. First Berlioz then Balakirev was offered the project, but it was Tchaikovsky, when encouraged by Balakirev some two years after Stasov’s proposal, that took up the task and saw it through. Perhaps it was the similarity between Byron’s own guilty situation (he fled England after an incestuous affair with his half-sister was revealed) and Tchaikovsky’s deep seated anguish over his own homosexuality that brought the music out of him. Byron’s story is a thinly veiled self portrait, a portrait in which the composer could easily see himself.

Composed between the fourth and fifth symphonies, this work is even more overtly programmatic than its numbered counterparts. The music is dripping with romantic angst, passion, pathos and drama. Tchaikovsky, who was never afraid of expressing his emotions forcefully, all but gets carried away in this substantial and colorful score. Although I may well be taken to task by a reader or two for admitting it, this recording was to my knowledge, my first experience with this music. I was aware of a number of well-received recordings such as Pletnev’s with the Russian National Orchestra and Jansons’ with the Oslo Philharmonic. It was, however, quite refreshing to sit down with this music with unbiased ears.

What I heard was most astonishing. Being familiar with Tchaikovsky’s numbered symphonies, there were certain things I was expecting, for example, a prominent use of the oboe, lush and technically challenging string writing, forceful use of timpani and cymbals. All this I got! In addition there are some splendid moments for the harp and as one might expect, all the high drama is carried out by a prominent and even forceful brass section. And yet, for all the histrionics, there is much elegant and tuneful writing too.

Each year we hear more hue and cry about the precarious fate of the classical music industry and we read report after report about the demise of recordings and of great orchestras. If this is the case, I am at a loss to explain the dozens of new discs that come my way each month. What is happening though is a seemingly new business model, such as the one on display here, with a major orchestra aggressively marketing its concerts as turned into recordings. The London Symphony is following suit and the results have been consistently fine discs coming out in fairly plentiful quantity.

There is a bit of crowd noise with which to contend here, but it is minimal, and the quality of the playing is first rate. One might even believe that the performances are fresher and more vibrant as they are the documents of a single event, without much aid from retakes and studio trickery. I do wish however that the kind producers would bag the applause at the end. It simply isn’t necessary and kind of destroys the mood, particularly in a work like this one that ends on a quiet note of forgiveness.

That gripe aside, Maestro Jurowski has given us an exciting and engaging reading of a work that I will now make an effort to get to know better. What more can one ask of a recording that to entice the listener to additional hearings? The production values here are of the highest order, with clear and luminous sound and consistently superb playing in the orchestra. The harpist gets special recognition for some spectacular effects. Program notes are concise and above all interesting; devoid of the blow by blow analytical drivel that plagues so many other such endeavors.

If this is the kind of music making we are going to get from this label, then long may it live. Heaven knows there is a wealth of fine concert material from this orchestra that is worth repeated hearings. High praise indeed for a superior product.

Kevin Sutton

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