Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony - Kitajenko

Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony - Kitajenko

Oehms Classics  OC 665

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony Op. 58

Gürzenich-Orchester Köln
Dmitrij Kitajenko (conductor)

Dimitri Kitajenko, Conductor of Honor of the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne since March 2009, has already completed a number of highly praised CD projects that have also won a number of awards. Recording Tchaikovsky’s complete symphonies is an undertaking that is particularly attractive because of the optimal conditions that now exist: the orchestra is in top form, today’s high-resolution and multi-channel SACD recording technology provides opportunities that completely eclipse previous technology, and last but not least, the conductor who leads us through Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works, Dimitri Kitajenko, Tchaikovsky from a master of the Russian conducting school is one of the last representatives of the great Russian conducting school. He studied at the Glinka Music School and the Rimski-Korsakov Conservatory of his home city, St. Petersburg. He continued studying with Leo Ginzburg in Moscow and attended the legendary conducting class held by Hans Swarowsky and Karl Österreicher in Vienna. In 1969 he won the First International Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition in Berlin.

The symphonic cycle will open with the Manfred Symphony, a programmatic work based on the drama by English poet George Gordon Byron.

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Reviews (2)

Review by John Miller - May 30, 2010

Tchaikovsky's “Manfred Symphony in Four Scenes after Byron’s Dramatic Poem, Op. 58 in B minor”, to give its proper name, had a complex gestation. Byron's overwrought Romantic hero Manfred appeared in a drama published in 1817. Schumann took it up first in 1848, setting some incidental music. Twenty years later, Russian critic Vladimir Stasov drew the attention of dilettante composer Balakirev to the drama, handing him a suggested plan for a four movement symphony. Aroused, yet not willing to do the work himself, Balakirev passed on the sketches to Hector Berlioz who also declined, being old and embittered (he died only a year later). Balakirev next canvassed his newly found protégé Tchaikovsky, to whom he had successfully delegated his idea for a Romeo & Juliet tone poem. Admiring of Schumann's Manfred music, Tchaikovsky accepted the challenge, and although still innately unconvinced of the value of programme music as opposed to a properly symphonic style, the composer set to work in April 1885 and completed the sketch by September. At the time he called it "the best of my symphonic compositions", although he did write write to his patron Nadezhda von Meck that he had himself become a Manfred.

After a rather unsuccessful première in Moscow, the work lay fallow, and three years later Tchaikovsky referred to it as "atrocious". Despite the brilliance of its orchestration and undoubted emotional power (portraying a self-loathing character was for him self-expression), he was probably aware that in symphonic terms, the two central movements (which are really picaresque diversions) effectively stopped the narrative flow dead. His own developmental path in the symphony was along a more abstract, cerebral form of creativity; Manfred notably comes between the Fourth and Fifth symphonies. However, many of Tchaikovsky's compositional fingerprints remain in the work's often startlingly original construction and dazzling orchestral colouration. Schumann, Liszt and Berlioz are obvious influences, and the originality of the Manfred Symphony in its turn inspired composers like Sibelius, who seemingly borrowed and further developed a number of its novelties in orchestration.

In terms of number of recordings, Manfred has fallen well short of those in Tchaikovsky's main-stream symphony cycle. However, it has thankfully mostly broken free of the temptation, initiated by Toscanini, to suffer large cuts, particularly from the final movement. Excellent complete versions on RBCD include those by Muti, Janssons, Pletnev, Jurowski and Petrenko amongst others (the latter's disc won the 2009 Gramophone Orchestral Award). On SA-CD, at the time of writing, the only version is by Kobayashi and the Czech Philharmonic, well-recorded and splendidly played but fatally flawed by the conductor's all too audible buzzy singing and growling in concertante style.

Kitaenko succeeded Günter Wand as honorary conductor of the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra in March 2009, and this recording of Manfred marks the beginning of this team setting down a full Tchaikovsky Symphony Edition with OEHMS. Still not very well-known world-wide, this orchestra can trace its roots back in Cologne to the C15th; Mahler, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, Brahms and Stravinsky all wrote for and conducted them, and a virtuoso spectacular such as the Manfred Symphony allows them to truly display their pedigree. OEHMS have given them a wonderfully natural concert sound (as I can attest from hearing them live), best in multichannel where even the slight dying reverberations from the Cologne Philharmonic hall are easily discerned. The listener's view is from the best seat in the house, with a deep and wide perspective, precise instrumental localisation and a huge dynamic range. There are no signs of congestion even at the quadruple forte climaxes, which have as much transparent detail as the quintuple pianissimo sections. Overall, an impression is gained that the main balancing is that of the conductor rather than that of engineers, with gloriously dense string tone, pungent lower winds, sparkling top (piccolo not laceratingly shrill), powerful basses and earth-shaking tam-tam and bass drum. Interestingly, although this is not a live audience recording, the engineers leave an inter-track segment in which one can quietly hear the players re-settling and preparing themselves, which gives an illusion of being present at a performance.

From the first moments, Kitajenko's carefully thought out and deeply felt reading makes its mark; the opening portrayal of the benighted Manfred (marked "Lento lugubre") is certainly the most desolate portrait of him I have ever heard; the woodwinds low pathetically, trudging strings plod despairingly with shoulders down. Others at this point make more resplendent sounds, as though portraying Manfred's surroundings rather than his spirits.Throughout this movement, and indeed in the whole work, Kitaenko manages better than most to solve the problem of the work's necessarily complex sectional nature by steering the orchestra masterfully through transitions, so the flow of the work is hardly compromised. In the final bars, the huge orchestral climax is just breath-taking, such is the precision of ensemble, power of the tam-tam strokes and rhythmic driving from the whole brass section.

Kitajenko's second movement (where an alpine fairy appears to Manfred in a waterfall's misty rainbow to remind him of his lost lover, Astarte) is a little more relaxed than Petrenko's dazzling fleetness, but this tempo allows the players more subtle nuancing, and the movement is like a magical scene from a Tchaikovsky ballet, so we can relish all the fleeting solos from various instruments, gossamer-light. Equally suffused with light is the Trio, a Big Tune, which avoids being saccharine by itself flowing balletically. The Third movement (or Tableau as the score calls the movements) finds the orchestra in Berlioz territory, with an Alpine idyll, more languid than most, which emphasises Tchaikovsky's direction of the simple yet poor life of the peasants. The playing here is wonderfully serene and idyllic, until Manfred's motto intrudes in baleful form.

According to Tchaikovsky's superscriptions, the Finale represents "Underground demons. Hellish Orgy". None of this appears in Byron's original drama, and is clearly a confection based on the brigands' orgy from Berlioz's Harold in Italy. It is a fairly standard orchestral orgy (as musical orgies go), with much bluster and superficial brilliance, but Kitajenko's firm grip and the passionate commitment of his orchestra carry it off even more convincingly than Petrenko's fine effort, again by virtue of seamless transitions between sections, and his maintaining electric tension throughout.

In the last few pages of the finale, Tchaikovsky halts proceedings for a moment to begin the final scene of Manfred's death after his forgiveness by Astarte. The score indicates that a harmonium in 'Grand jeu' (i.e. all its stops pulled out) now solemnly plays fortissimo a theme said by Tchaikovsky to represent Manfred's soul, accompanied by all the woodwind and horns. In the composer's day, the harmonium was a common domestic instrument, implying a personal and religious character, which is presumably why he chose it over a large concert organ (this was not for lack of resources, all his symphonies were played in the best concert halls).

These days, the harmonium seems wheezy and archaic, and so is usually replaced by an organ - sometimes with a volume and grandeur similar to that required by Saint-Saens in the finale of his organ symphony (listen to Kobayashi for an example). Such a massively impressive "soul" is clearly not what Tchaikovsky wants; he would have reverted to the quadruple fortes of the previous section if he envisaged such a huge sound. Kitajenko sensitively uses not the full power of the Philharmonie's three manual organ, but a registration which blends with and augments the accompanying woodwinds and horns at a fortissimo level. It works well for me, but full organ enthusiasts might be tempted to avoid this disc for the sake of a few final bars. They would be missing a ripely warm and affectionate denouement for the Gürzenich's Manfred.

I have no hesitation in recommending this fine disc, played with passionate commitment, directed with understanding and intelligence and bestowed with a recording which many will find to be demonstration-worthy. An auspicious launch of Kitajenko's Tchaikovsky Symphony Edition.

Copyright © 2010 John Miller and


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Review by John Broggio - October 26, 2010

A great symphony at last accorded an excellent performance on SACD!

If one were to judge a recording purely based on the timings indicated, then one would conclude here that either many omit some repeat markings in the outer movements (they do not) or that this was so slow as to be un-recommendable (it is not) and serves to highlight the follies of relying purely on numeric information for how the performance might affect a listener.

Despite the provenance of the concert hall for this disc, the playing is astonishingly well coordinated within and between sections of the orchestra. This is thrilling in its own right but at times one feels the admirable restraint shown by Dmitrij Kitajenko robs the impact of some otherwise terrifying passages of the first movement; a little more unbuttoned playing would elevated proceedings into the thrilling arena. Some though will clearly relish the restraint that is reserved for the coda (and the finale) so that these areas have an even bigger impact; it doesn't trouble this listener in the slightest and it has to be said that the sound at the conclusion of this movement is overwhelming in its intensity - it sweeps all before it most majestically (and menacingly).

The second movement shows precisely how articulation and lightness of touch can dispose of the need for a quicksilver tempo choice (oh, that the recent issue of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Nights Dream had the same qualities as here); still, there will some who would rightly demand a little more Vivace from this team, even though the spirito is fully in evidence. The central section is judged to perfection and no-one can have any serious complaints about this part at all. The third movement is most beautifully played and the quality of this orchestra makes one yearn for it to undertake tours more frequently (not that I wish to deprive their home town of their orchestra!)

The fourth movement is normally problematic, for it starts most energetically and - in the wrong hands - a lot of bombast; this is never the case here. Shortly before the fugal section, many performances seem to come to a halt but Kitajenko keeps the tension mounting throughout and the listener gripping on to the edge of their seat. The other crucial moment in the finale is the entrance of the harmonium (here given to the organ) which often seems incongruous but is melded into a convincing part of the orchestra and its argument.

The sound is as wide-ranging dynamically, deep in both timbre and impact and as life-like as one could wish. The sense of "being there" is complete in MCH and this disc would make an easy choice for being a superb demonstration disc due to the many qualities listed above.

Very highly recommended.

Copyright © 2010 John Broggio and


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Comments (1)

Comment by Paul Peterson - March 8, 2024 (1 of 1)

This disc is far superior to the Pentatone Pletnev recording, as are the other members of the Oehms/Kitajenko cycle. Be sure to avoid Pletnev, who can be heard humming with the music.