Two different perspectives, two different approaches but both valid and both worthwhile. Chailly and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra were astonishingly good: the magical transparency of Mendelssohn enhancing the High Romantic supernatural nature of Tchaikovsky's Manfred. A truly illuminating, inspired performance! Much as I love the BBC SO, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra are altogether in a more spectacular league, the musicians hand picked from the finest orchestras in Europe, playing together for love. Always a special occasion; no comparisons really possible. Chailly's Prom last week with the La Scala Philharmonic came nowhere near, partly because the programme (Brahms and Respighi) was less inspired. So track down Chailly's Lucerne Mendelssohn and Manfred, which was filmed live for broadcast. No disrespect to Bychkov, but Lucerne was exceptional.
Bychkov framed Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony op 58 with Sergei Taneyev's Oresteia op 6 (1889) placing the focus on Taneyev's connections to Tchaikovsky. In a way, this diminishes Taneyev, for Oresteia isn't very Tchaikovskian. It's a tone poem based on Greek mythology which surprisingly doesn't figure much in Russian repertoire, at least from the assumptions we now have about the style. A lovely violin melody weaves through the piece, connecting fast-flowing passages that suggest, perhaps the Furies, wild climaxes contrasted with a serene section , harps decorating strings. Bychkov's reasons for pairing this with Manfred are much stronger. Orestes is a doomed hero, who kills his mother urged by his sister, and is himself killed by a snake.
Thus the cosmic struggle in Manfred, which Byron set in the high Alps. In Byron's time, the Alps symbolized danger, the vastness of nature dwarfing humankind. Schumann's Manfred is Romantic in the true, wild Germanic sense. Tchaikovsky, however. was even more a man of the theatre, so Bychkov's approach emphasized the panoramic, scenic aspects of the piece. He created the backdrop to the drama vividly: generous, sweeping lines suggesting limitless horizons. As the tempo quickened, the orchestra soared upward: searching lines contrasting well with the sudden crashing climax with which the first movement ends.
Perhaps this is the moment when Manfred meets his mysterious half sister Astarte. What is the nature of their relationship (bearing in mind Byron's unnatural relationship with his own half sister)? And, why the mountains? The second movement, marked vivace con spirito, describes a mountain spirit, one of the elementals who haunt Alpine lore. They are fairies, but also signify danger, their elusiveness defying human control. Thus the high violin melody that flies above, and away, from the main orchestral foundation.
The third movement describes the mountain folk, who carve out marginal lives in harsh conditions, yet seem happy as they dance, presumably in pure, open air festivals. They're tough folk and down to earth, while Manfred, though a hero, is rather more quixotic. Like Byron himself, maybe, a towering figure but one with dark complexes and possibly a death wish. Tolling bells suggest danger. The music descends into a stranger mood, sounds crashing against each other as if the earth itself was imploding,"fire" pouring forth from the rapid rivulets of sound. Manfred fights off the evil spirits who tempt him, but chooses to die on his own terms. What might Tchaikovsky have made of this? The finale was grand, the pace brisk, craggy peaks and descents sharply defined, dizzying figures suggesting turbulence. Not mountain breezes, but perhaps something more demonic. The organ underlined the cosmological nature of Manfred's predicament. Although the drama dissipates at the end of the symphony, textures are more refined, more esoteric, one feels that perhaps Manfred is entering a new frontier, beyond the ken of mankind. Hence details, like the horn calling the hero on, and the dizzying upwards rush towards a serene conclusion that might suggest spiritual sublimation. Chailly was better at evoking the demonic supernatural levels in the piece lurking behind the scenery, but Bychkov's account was heady stuff.
In between Taneyev and Manfred, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto no 1 with Kiril Gerstein, a moment of relative sanity between the two doomed heroes at either end of this Prom.