Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony has been one of the unluckiest pieces on disc. Recorded numerous times, there are only three recordings worth mentioning: Silvestri (Testament, mono; or BBC Legends), Muti (EMI), and Ashkenazy (Decca/Australian Eloquence), and none is an ideal performance. Granted, the piece has a reputation for being ferociously difficult to play, but what it has really lacked is a conductor willing to throw caution to the wind and simply play the living daylights out of the thing. Well, at long last, Vladimir Jurowski has done it. Here is that “take no prisoners” performance that Manfred enthusiasts have been waiting for.
Start with the coda of the first movement, always something of a damp squib as conductors refuse to let those theoretically overwhelming crashes from cymbals and tam-tam echo with the necessary cataclysmic force. Not only does Jurowski let them have at it, he also finds several captivating details in the woodwinds and horns that you will hear in no other performance. This kind of sensitivity even when all hell is breaking loose bodes well for the rest of the symphony, and so it proves. He drives the scherzo at an insane clip that has the LPO winds hanging on for dear life, but they emerge triumphant. The pastoral third movement is as dreamy and romantic as one could ask, its central storm impressively turbulent. Best of all, Jurowski goes nuts at the opening of the finale: finally, an infernal orgy that lives up to the notion!
But it’s not all noise, speed, and hysteria. Jurowski handles the lyrical music (the representation of Manfred’s beloved Astarte) quite sensitively, without haste. Similarly, he’s not embarrassed by all that recitative stuff between the finale’s quicker episodes: taking it seriously makes us take it seriously too, and it sounds purposeful rather than merely time-filling. Jurowski also has a terrific-sounding organ to cap the proceedings with suitable grandeur, and to render a uniquely satisfying, peaceful conclusion. Through it all the live audience is mostly very quiet (a few coughs here and there), and aside from some tubbiness in the bass, the Royal Festival Hall sonics are quite good. But really, I wouldn’t care if everyone present had been dying of flu–this is the Manfred to own, and the one performance you simply cannot afford to miss. [10/30/2008]