There is much here to build upon the promise of Bychkov’s Pathetique – the exceptional performance which launched this ongoing ‘Tchaikovsky Project’. There is, of course, the abiding warmth and humanity of the Czech Philharmonic where expressivity always trumps spectacle, where phrasing relates to sound in ear-catching ways and the reasons the notes are there in the first place rightfully takes precedence over their cosmetic effect.
The soulfulness of this Manfred finds concentration in the first movement where Byron’s solitary hero traverses a dark forbidding orchestral landscape entirely scored in the lowest registers (great kinship with Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta). Bychkov makes something really special of the wistfully lyric episode for strings at the heart of the movement out of which emerges the solitude of bass clarinet against a barely discernible rustle of violins. The defiant coda is always thrilling – a fabulous saturation of sound – though I think Bychkov might have encouraged more from his trumpets as the soul-baring hits the peak of its intensity.
The Czech Philharmonic woodwinds have such a beguiling homespun quality generally but in the shimmering waterfall of the second movement they are super-balletic, engagingly decamping us to the world of Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty. I love the songful phrasing of strings and solo clarinet in the lovely second idea – so effortless – and it is this very humane response to the lyricism of the piece that is carried through to the pastorale of the third movement. Bychkov has his finger on the pulse of this music in a way I haven’t heard since the likes of Mravinsky (though he never recorded this piece) and Markevitch. His realisation of the returning main theme with horns in glorious counterpoint carries such sweeping authenticity.
But maybe in this of all the symphonies there are elements of spectacle – and I’m thinking now specifically of the last movement – that require a degree or two more heat. The whirling bacchanal doesn’t quite excite as it might – due in part to the reticence (in the balance) of the percussion and the all-important tambourine. But Bychkov makes much of the return of earlier material where Tchaikovsky fabricates a very real sense of deja vu in Manfred’s journey and I applaud the use of chamber organ as opposed to a full-blown Phantom of the Opera job (a temptation, granted) where one should feel it is not so much dominating but subtly buttressing the winds at the start of the apotheosis.
No question, then, that whatever my minor reservations in this instance, the prospect of what is to come from this series can be keenly anticipated.