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CD Review

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Symphony "Manfred", Op. 58

Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
EMI Classics 64872-2
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan
Also available on EMI Angel CDC747412-2:
Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan

Is the "Manfred" Symphony a bad work, or are the recordings thus far simply not good? I have three recordings (Haitink, Muti, and Jurowski) that I consider excellent, but there are boatloads of readings that make the work sound like an overlong tone poem. Never the most cogent of beasts in symphonic form, Tchaikovsky's hyper-Romantic writing can sound disjointed under a less able baton. While his discography is surprisingly uneven for such a great artist, Riccardo Muti has always been an exceptional advocate of the Russian classics. Taken from his highly-regarded complete Tchaikovsky cycle with the Philharmonia – now found on Warner Classics – this disc elevates "Manfred" to a statement of real stature.

Firstly, the Philharmonia sounds magnificent. For an artistic tradition that is generally reserved, the English have always done well by Tchaikovsky. Ashkenazy's Decca version of this very symphony is also with the Philharmonia, while Jurowski leads an astoundingly involved London Symphony Orchestra. All are worth having, but this is one of Muti's best recordings. Climaxes are explosive and the playing is rich and committed. The low strings – never a sure bet from British orchestras – are truly present and utterly engaged. The Philharmonia has a rock-solid lower half that recalls Klemperer's glory days, and the percussion and brass are at the fore. Speaking of Klemperer, he'd be proud of the swirling winds in the andante, and the obvious care that the conductor takes in matters of balance and dynamics.

Secondly, the vintage EMI sound is nothing short of superb, allowing you to hear each of the positive qualities that I've listed above. The orchestra has real weight, and you can appreciate the sensitivity that Muti brings to this sprawling and much maligned score. The conductor chooses fleet tempos that allow him to generate real tension and power without ever giving the impression that he's simply rushing or wailing away at the music. Raymond Tuttle was not happy with Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra (DGG 439891-2) for those very reasons, and frankly Pletnev is hardly alone in trying to blast his way through to make sense of a difficult piece. But Muti finds a near ideal balance of nuance and virtuosity, and this remains a great disc by any standard. Find this used, or if you want the whole canon, go for one of the beautifully packaged Warner boxes.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman