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CD Review

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Symphony "Manfred", Op. 58

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
Recorded live at Royal Festival Hall
London Philharmonic LPO-0009
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I've spent a good deal of the day with Tchaikovsky's Op. 58, having evaluated EMI Classics 764872 earlier this afternoon. As I previously pointed out, this oft-ignored score has few truly excellent recordings, and they generally come from London's own Philharmonia Orchestra. Of the major orchestras in London, some consider the Philharmonic to be the weakest, but they have resurged (at least on disc) with Vladimir Jurowski. Of the major Tchaikovsky works, this is arguably the most challenging. It's also the work in which most conductors appear unwilling to "let go" at the climaxes, which puzzles me because this is a symphony and composer with which you can take considerable liberties. Some prove simply too restrained (Previn and Haitink) while others try to smash their way through in an attempt to be exciting (Pletnev, especially). The best recordings of this piece balance excitement and Romantic feeling. Jurowski proves entirely capable of doing so.

Jurowski has his forces playing like the world-class band they can be under great leadership. The first movement is drenched in dramatic tension, while each section of the orchestra alternates between grinding out their parts with abandon and lushly pouring out melodies. I don't want that to come across as a negative, but I mean to say that neither conductor nor his ensemble ever loses sight of Tchaikovsky's demands for both beauty and power. Each and every bar is carefully considered, with tremendous attention given to every individual section of the orchestra. In this reading more than any other, the work feels more "complete" than ever. The fragmented and sometimes confusing nature of what is essentially a four movement tone poem is minimized by ideal tempos and outstanding playing. The first movement is expansive but never drags, with startlingly present percussion at critical moments. The scherzo sounds more like great Tchaikovsky than it possibly ever has, thanks to the conductor's insistence on rhythmic clarity and accuracy.

In the Andante, we have a fleet and flowing rendition that perfectly captures the poetic nature of the composer's slow movements. This may just be the most perfectly paced on disc. But fine as this is, the finale is absolutely amazing, a fiery and intense reading that makes all the others seem tame. Even as marvelously as the Philharmonia plays for Muti, they can't match the sheer power on display here. Nor does Jurowski fall into the trap that Muti does; he refuses to make the themes turn stiff or lumpish. Rather, the younger maestro presses on, completely unafraid of the composer's barely contained hysteria. A very quiet audience proves quite appreciative at the end, though the applause was hardly needed. Great sound completes a very desirable package, and will fill a gap for any Tchaikovsky fans who have avoided the work till now.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman