Though live performances are relatively rare, many fine recordings of the Manfred Symphony are available. Arturo Toscanini’s trail-blazing 1949 recording (RCA), for instance, demands to be heard, despite the savage cuts to the score and lo-fi sound. Gennady Rozhdestvensky, meanwhile, wears his Russian heart on his sleeve in a white-hot reading (Melodyia), and Vladimir Ashkenazy’s debut recording as a conductor with the New Philharmonia (Decca) is another strong candidate.
The best recording
Vasily Petrenko (conductor)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (2008)
Vasily Petrenko’s 2008 recording was a release that first alerted music-lovers to what the young Russian conductor was achieving in Liverpool, turning a fine provincial orchestra into a world-class one. Here, the symphony’s doom-laden opening bars are as lento lugubre as Tchaikovsky demands, and the shifts in tension are superbly gauged throughout the movement. Petrenko resists going for broke in the coda without compromising on excitement.
He then takes the Vivace con spirito at a dangerous, break-neck speed, leaving the listener – though not his dazzling wind players – breathless. Admittedly, the initial tempo for the Andante con moto feels too slow – the first oboe’s lovingly phrased solo sounds just a little too languorous, whereas other conductors allow the music to flow more naturally. Petrenko, though, sets a cracking pace for the Finale, building and maintaining a fine head of steam through to the full-throttle re-emergence of the Manfred theme.
There is an appropriate abrasive edge to the playing and recorded sound which is altogether exhilarating, and Petrenko never fails to remind us that this is no comfortable work. The controversial organ part in the coda is heard better in this recording than any other – clear and to-the-fore but without being allowed to simply blast us out of our seats.
No single recording of this unique masterpiece sweeps the board in all four movements, and various approaches all bring their own rewards (see ‘Three other great recordings’, below). After repeated hearings, however – and irrespective of its bargain price – it is Petrenko’s sharply etched interpretation in vivid upfront sound that has ‘winner’ written all over it.
Three other great recordings
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (2017)
Decca 483 2320
The most beautiful orchestral playing imaginable can be heard on Semyon Bychkov’s 2017 recording with the Czech Philharmonic, in which Decca’s state-of-the art recording captures every detail. It beggars belief that the orchestra’s musicians had not previously encountered the Manfred until Bychkov introduced them to it, but initial scepticism from them clearly became a labour of love. Choosing between Bychkov and Petrenko proved a headache: a model of restraint, Bychkov’s is the more measured and has the finest sound of all recordings; Petrenko’s is the more volatile and viscerally exciting.
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)
London Philharmonic Orchestra (2004)
LPO Live LPO-0009
By 2006, when this recording was made, Vladimir Jurowski had established a great rapport with the London Philharmonic Orchestra – it shows in a live recording that is magnificent in all respects, and is particularly successful in the Finale. As with Petrenko’s recording, we aren’t drowned out in a welter of organ sound, and the enthusiastic response from the Royal Festival Hall audience reflects the excitement of the occasion. For similar thrills from a close contemporary of Jurowski, Andris Nelsons’s 2013 CBSO account (Orfeo) would run this one close were it not for the conductor’s heavy, and distracting, intakes of breath.
Mikhail Pletnev (conductor)
Russian National Orchestra (2013)
Pentatone PTC 5186 387
Originally hand-picked by Mikhail Pletnev during the Glasnost era, the Russian National Orchestra has remained arguably Russia’s most outstanding symphony orchestra. As in his earlier 1992 recording for DG, Pletnev manages to maul the repeated string passage following the Finale’s opening flourish, but even so, this 2013 version for Pentatone is very impressive – he is quite a cool customer here, and takes a more classical approach than most. The recorded sound is also good, despite the remoteness of the horns.
And one to avoid…
Evgeny Svetlanov (conductor)
There are two Manfred recordings by Evgeny Svetlanov available. In his live 1989 account with the Berlin Phil (on the Testament label), he ditches the organ-led final pages, substituting them with a barn-storming reprise of the Manfred theme. This ‘alternative’ ending is undoubtedly exciting and is greeted with audience approval, but it is not what Tchaikovsky wrote.