Tchaikovsky : Sinfonia ManfredAmsterdam, Concertgebouw, 2005 (Audio)
Director: Lawrence Foster
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The Manfred Symphony in B minor, Op. 58, is a programmatic symphony composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky between May and September 1885.
It is based on the poem "Manfred" written by Lord Byron in 1817. It is the only one of Tchaikovsky's symphonies he completed that is not numbered (the Symphony in E flat is a conjectural work left unfinished by the composer) and was written between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.
Like the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky wrote the Manfred Symphony at the behest of nationalist composer Mily Balakirev, who provided a program written by critic Vladimir Stasov. Stasov had sent the program to Balakirev in 1868, hoping that Balakirev would write a symphony based on it. Balakirev did not feel capable of carrying out this project and sent the program to French composer Hector Berlioz, whose programmatic works had genuinely impressed him. Berlioz refused, claiming old age and ill health, and returned the program to Balakirev. Balakirev kept the program until he reestablished contact with Tchaikovsky in the early 1880s.
The Manfred Symphony is the only programmatic symphonic work by Tchaikovsky in more than one movement. He initially considered the work one of his best, and in a typical reversal of opinion later considered destroying all but the opening movement. The symphony was greeted with mixed reviews, some finding much to laud in it, and others feeling that its programmatic aspects only weakened it. Manfred remained rarely performed for many years, probably due to its length and complexity. It has been recorded with increasing frequency but is still seldom heard in the concert hall.
Lento lugubre. Manfred wanders in the Alps. Weary of the fatal question of existence, tormented by hopeless longings and the memory of past crimes, he suffers cruel spiritual pangs. He has plunged into occult sciences and commands the mighty powers of darkness, but neither they nor anything in this world can give him the forgetfulness to which alone he vainly aspires. The memory of the lost Astarte, once passionately loved, gnaws his heart and there is neither limit nor end to Manfred's despair.
The musical embodiment of this program note is presented in five extensive musical slabs spaced out by four silences. A brooding first theme, briefly unharmonized, builds to music both spacious and monolithic. A second theme leads to a second musical slab, this time pushing forward with the loudest climax Tchaikovsky ever wrote. The music in the third slab seems calmer, while the fourth slab marks the appearance of Astarte. The fifth slab culminates in a frantic climax and a series of abrupt, final chords.
Vivace con spirito. The Alpine fairy appears before Manfred in the rainbow from the spray of a waterfall.
Tchaikovsky's efforts in exploring fresh possibilities in scoring allowed him to present his music with new colors and more refined contrasts. In this scherzo, it seems as though the orchestration creates the music, as though Tchaikovsky has thought directly in colors and textures, making these the primary focus. Put simply, there is no tune and little definition of any harmonic base, creating a world alluring, fragile and magical. The point becomes clear when an actual and lyrical tune enters the central section of the movement.
Andante con moto. A picture of the bare, simple, free life of the mountain folk.
This pastorale opens with a siciliana, then the three-note call of a hunter. The opening theme returns. We hear a brief and lively peasant dance, then an agitated outburst, before the opening theme returns. The opening pastoral theme eventually returns more spaciously and in a fuller, more decorative scoring. The hunter sounds his horn; the music fades.
Allegro con fuoco. The subterranean palace of Arimanes. Infernal orgy. Appearance of Manfred in the middle of the bacchanal. Evocation and appearance of the shade of Astarte. He is pardoned. Death of Manfred.
Many critics consider the finale to be fatally flawed, but the problem lies less with music than with the program. Up to this point Tchaikovsky has done well at reconciling the extra-musical requirements for each movement with the music itself. Now, however, the program takes over, beginning with a fugue, which is by its nature academic and undramatic, to depict the horde's discovery of Manfred within their midst. The result, though in many ways becoming a condensed recapitulation of the latter half of the first movement, becomes a fragmented movement with musical disruption and non-sequiturs, ending with the Germanic chorale depicting Manfred's death scene.