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Ivan March
Gramophone, December 2009

The brilliant young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko is undoubtedly a new star in the conducting firmament. He has transformed the playing of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic who obviously greatly enjoy playing for him. His splendid new version of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred was rightly chosen as Orchestral Record of the Year. It is thrilling and finally establishes the symphony as a masterpiece.

Tony Way
The Age, November 2009

This finely wrought disc of symphonic romanticism  has just been honoured with Gramophone magazine’s prize for orchestral disc of the year. Petrenko, a native of St Petersburg has been at the helm of the Liverpool orchestra for just three years but he has already branded the players with his ardent love of Russian music. Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, with its richly evocative orchestration, is an ideal vehicle for the young conductor to draw an enviable wealth of detail and colour from his players. Wind and brass sections in particular play with enormous zeal, while the strings are totally unafraid to exhibit emotion through such devices as the portamento (or “slide”). From the grandeur of the opening through the varying moods of the inner movements to the infernal finale, Petrenko directs a performance of great dramatic import that pays homage to the epic of Byron on which the symphony is based. Tchaikovsky’s last tone poem, The Voyeda, based on a tragic tale by Pushkin, is an excellent companion to the symphony and receives an equally dedicated recording.

Gramophone, October 2009

…this release from one of the most exciting of young conductors (indeed, a previous Young Artist of the Year). “Petrenko’s Byronic petulance makes something really stirring of the self-loathing—Tchaikovsky’s as much as that of Byron’s antihero,” he wrote, adding, “The playing is lovely…Petrenko also keeps his head in the inferno of the finale, emphasising Tchaikovsky the classicist in the hard-working fugue.” The Petrenko era in Liverpool continues to yield rich dividends, he and his players clearly set on catching up with the Hallé as the UK orchestral success story of the day.

Donald R Vroon
American Record Guide, March 2009

I have met Mr Petrenko and enjoyed his work more than once, but I did not expect him to outshine Muti or Svetlanov—nor does he. But he does give us the best new recording of this [the Manfred Symphony] in 20 years. The Liverpool orchestra is not as Russian sounding as Svetlanov’s or as beautiful as Muti’s Philharmonia, but they do fine work here. And Naxos hasn’t the refinement of sound EMI gave Muti, but it’s pretty strong and impressive (and Muti’s organ was weak)…Tchaikovsky did not like his tone-poem, The Voyevoda, and never published it and threatened to tear it up after he conducted it. But the composer would certainly have more faith in his work if he heard Mr Petrenko conduct it. This is the best Voyevoda I have heard—though the piece will never be top-drawer Tchaikovsky. It is also the fastest, by far.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, March 2009

In Petrenko’s hands, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic suddenly becomes, by a startling form of alchemy, the Moscow State Orchestra. This performance doesn’t just speak Tchaikovsky; it speaks Russian, with all its visceral earthiness and thick consonants. The soul of Tchaikovsky is laid totally bare. We are deep in his subconscious. © 2009 Fanfare Read complete review

Arthur Lintgen
Fanfare, March 2009

Vasily Petrenko is the latest charismatic young conductor who appears to be following in the sizeable footsteps of Vladimir Jurowski. Tchaikovsky’s Manfred is a great place to start for a Russian conductor desiring to demonstrate his credentials and the virtuosity of his orchestra. The work is a masterpiece unlike anything else Tchaikovsky ever wrote, but it is also a long and difficult piece that is very conductor dependent.

The Voyevoda is one of Tchaikovsky’s less successful orchestral works. …I have never heard The Voyevoda sound better than it does here. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s brass section is especially outstanding.

The sound is excellent in every conceivable way, which is a good thing, given the importance of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. In fact, this is one of the best sounding Naxos recordings I have ever heard. © 2009 Fanfare Read complete review

Bruce Surtees
The WholeNote, February 2009

For many classical music lovers who listen to FM radio, WBEN-FM is the station of choice. I listen to it in my car and recently I heard, not on the same day, outstanding performances of two long time favourites, Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, opus 45. I sat in my driveway waiting for the extras to identify the recordings. As it turned out, they were both Naxos. Tchaikovsky was played by the Liverpool Philharmonic under Vasily Petrenko (8.570568) and the Rachmaninov featured the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Enrique Batiz (8.550583). I acquired both discs and found them to be all that I expected both in the high octane performances and wide-open, dynamic sound. I recommend them enthusiastically.

Gregory Keane
Limelight, February 2009

This Manfred is a worthy addition to the recorded legacy of a symphony which has not always fared well on disc. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and their recently appointed Chief Conductor Vasily Petrenko are a formidable team and certainly on fire in this demanding mercurial score…their opening movement is searching and beautifully nuanced, full of the unhurried phrasing, slight hesitations and subtle rubato that I recall made the (very) old Constantine Silvestri version such a delight. The brass are completely confident and the climax is wonderfully intense and passionate. The second movement is a delight, with gossamer textures and superb woodwind playing…[in the third movement] the RLPO’s woodwind choir is delectable here and the orchestra and conductor convey the fleeting moment of pastoral bliss. The final movement’s orgy of the damned with its bizarre alternating tarantella/rumba rhythms is well controlled and again Petrenko doesn’t rush his fences, preferring to savour Manfred’s anguish to full effect, culminating in the great organ peroration and epilogue.

Edward Seckerson
Gramophone, January 2009

The 50 greatest Tchaikovsky recordings

A remarkable disc of Tchaikovsky’s ‘problem child’—at a price that’s right

Petrenko’s Manfred emerges from the gothic greys of the opening wind chorale to vent his heartache in an emotive surge of string sound. And to ensure that we’ve grasped the measure of his despair, he repeats himself. Petrenko’s Byronic petulance makes something really stirring of the self-loathing Tchaikovsky’s as much as that of Byron’s anti­hero. But the real miracle of this first movement is the vision of idealised love emerging so tenderly in what one might normally call the development. The palest clarinet against muted tremolando strings takes us directly to the heart of the matter, and Petrenko and his orchestra don’t disappoint. Likewise in the epic coda, where anguish is again writ large in overreaching horns and trumpets. No superfluous tam-tam, thankfully.

The dazzling apparitions of the second movement’s light-catching waterfall are sharply etched, and if Petrenko has a rather leisurely idea of what constitutes Andante con moto in the third movement, he can’t be blamed for loving this vintage Tchaikovsky melody too much. The playing, again, is lovely. Petrenko also keeps his head in the inferno of the finale, emphasising Tchaikovsky the classicist in the hard-working fugue. The "phantom" organ, though impressively caught here, gets no better, but is quickly forgotten amid the serenity of the final pages.

The opening pages of The Voyevoda seem to suggest a psychological summit meeting between Manfred and Hermann from The Queen of Spades. Its galloping obsessiveness ratchets up the torment again. The bass clarinet gives everyone the evil eye; no wonder Tchaikovsky tried to destroy it. This is impressive—and, at Naxos’s pricing, not to be missed.

Ian Lace
MusicWeb International, December 2008

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, or to give the work its full name: “Manfred Symphony in Four Scenes after Byron’s Dramatic Poem, Op. 58” was written between the composer’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Keith Anderson’s notes, for this new Naxos release, do not give this full title but he does include some details about Byron’s poem, sufficient to give meaning to the programme of the music. 

In July 2006 I compared two recordings of the work: the classic 1954 Kletzki recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra now available on Testament SBT 1048; and Jurowski’s 2004 live recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on their own label - London Philharmonic Orchestra LPO-0009. 

Kletzki’s recording, still recommended in the catalogues, is a pared down version of the symphony. As I have remarked, the cuts, in my opinion are fully justified: the main deletions, from the finale, being lugubrious material that adds little and loosens the tension.

I give below, for interest, respective timings for the three recordings. In this review I will concentrate on comparing only the Kletzki and Petrenko readings. I would refer readers to the file above for an assessment of the Jurowski recording.

Manfred Symphony - Timings Kletzki Jurowski Petrenko
Movement I – Lento lugubre – etc 17:03 17:37 15:43
Movement II – Vivace con spirito 8:37 8:32 9:37
Movement III – Andante con moto 9:26 11:38 11:54
Movement IV – Allegro con fuoco 16:00 20:21 20:32

The first movement introduces Manfred, in his Alpine castle. He is tired of life, having drunk his fill of all experiences, forbidden and otherwise. He has shunned the company of men. He communes with the spirit world, attempting to expiate his guilt over his illicit love for his sister Astarte. Byron was, it is thought, probably attempting to expiate a similar incestuous relationship and, in all probability, Tchaikovsky his homosexuality.

Petrenko’s opening is dire and dark indeed. He presents Manfred in the darkest of colours, being totally irredeemable, one senses. Kletzki is a bit kinder, creating a more three-dimensional character. In contrast Petrenko captures Astarte’s sweet innocence and yearning well enough. Like the classic Kletzki recording the RLPO’s opening movement has plenty of bite. It also revels in the advantages of hi-fi sound as well as wide stereo perspectives and dynamics. That said, Testament’s, digital remastering of Kletzki’s 1954 sound is nothing to be sniffed at.

The second movement was suggested by an episode in Byron’s poem in which ‘The Alpine Fairy appears to Manfred beneath the rainbow of the waterfall’. Petrenko, in more expansive mood—9:37 as opposed to Kletzki’s 8:37—brings many little felicities and nuances to his evocation of the rainbow shining through the waterfall. Rivalling Kletzki he conjures a most tender portrayal of the Witch of the Alps. In both recordings Manfred’s sudden presence is sinister indeed. The third movement —a pastoral - is subtitled: ‘The simple, free peaceful life of the mountain folk’. Petrenko is more bucolic. He makes this episode more of an expansive ramble than Kletzki who is more animated. But Petrenko’s reinstatement of Manfred’s malign influence is devastating especially with its darkly tolling bell.

The finale which departs substantially from Byron’s narrative, depicts a subterranean bacchanal: ‘the spirit of Astarte appears, and pardons Manfred for his earthly sins before his death’. Petrenko’s reading thrusts forward wildly with the music tremendously exciting and the RLPO strings especially keen and characterfully nuanced. Petrenko makes you really feel a thrashing elemental maelstrom as well as a hedonistic celebration and Manfred’s anguish. He does not shy away from using portamento to heighten the emotional temperature. The climax is tremendous with the organ exultantly proclaiming redemption. Gain he rivals Kletzki’s punchy, dynamic reading, itself delivered at white heat.

Tchaikovsky’s symphonic ballad The Voyevoda was inspired by Pushkin, who had in turn been influenced by a work of the Polish poet Mickiewicz. The story is about the Voyevoda, a provincial governor, who surprises his wife with her lover and bids his servant shoot her. The servant shoots his master in error. Tchaikovsky graphically covers the story from his preliminary suspicions, through spying on his wife and then the attempted murder. The mood is sinister. It has been suggested that the work’s mood might have reflected Tchaikovsky’s dismay at the severance of relations between himself and his benefactor, Nadezhda von Meck. The work was first performed in Moscow in 1891 some two years before Tchaikovsky’s death. Petrenko opens the work in agitation with galloping rhythms suggesting the Voyevoda’s anxiety to clarify his suspicions. The lovers’ meeting is depicted as agitated and somber. Their guilt-ridden tryst leads to the ultimate tragedy and Tchaikovsky piles on the agony with Petrenko underlining the music’s rage and the violence.

Petrenko draws a thrilling, darkly-hued Manfred that rivals Kletzki’s classic 1954 mono recording.

Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, November 2008

…this new Naxos recording gives us the complete score and… at the same time retains the tension.  It is all the more welcome for that.  It offers, moreover, convincing proof of the orchestra’s rejuvenation under its young principal conductor appointed in 2006, Vasily Petrenko… widely acknowledged as a conductor who both inspires his musicians and brings fresh insight to even the most familiar and hackneyed works, has shaken things up considerably.  Audiences are now bigger—and they are generally younger.  And, if this Manfred is a good indication of what is going on, that is not so hard to understand.

Manfred poses particular problems, it is often said, because of its specific narrative “programme”.  Any difficulties are relative easily overcome in the first three movements where the programme is quite generalised and concerned with atmosphere rather than specific action.  They really surface, however, in the finale where Tchaikovsky’s determination to follow the explicit requirements of the “story” can impede the musical flow - so explaining those drastic cuts imposed in the past by no doubt well-meaning conductors.

Petrenko triumphs, however, in navigating the fine line between compelling drama and superficial melodramatics with notable success.  Within a comparatively weighty interpretation, he skilfully utilises the RLPO’s plangent orchestral palette—the woodwinds are especially impressive—to emphasise the score’s darker elements of foreboding and maintain its emotional tension. This he does even at points where other conductors have compromised its integrity by seeking to lighten the mood.

What is particularly impressive from the outset is the way in which Petrenko moulds a strong sense of anticipation—and even an element of mystery—while resisting any temptation to dawdle.  At about 4:30, for instance he presses on dramatically where others frequently linger.  Similarly, at 6:14 he encourages the horn player to eschew anything that sounds backward-looking and nostalgic: after all, nostalgia at only six minutes in, even if it is supposed to represent the central character’s feelings of remorse, doesn’t really make a great deal of musical sense.  Paradoxically, Petrenko skilfully manipulates his orchestra’s rich and full overall sound to create a more than usually bleak and desolate musical climate so that even Tchaikovsky’s occasional consolatory phrases seem essentially empty.  The controlled power he applies to the movement’s final orchestral peroration is most impressive.

The skittish, almost balletic opening of the second movement, vivace con spirito, is very well executed.  Petrenko again digs beneath the superficial, managing to convey the idea that there is something a little uncomfortable here, thereby maintaining that all-important emotional tension established in the first movement.  The first entrance of the lyrical theme at 2:54 is done with just a hint of reserve, for example, remaining unresolved until its more obviously joyous reappearance at 4:58. 
A more languorous than usual opening to the beautifully played slow movement sets the tone for something rather more contemplative than we are necessarily used to.  Although the tempo picks up a little from 5:03 onwards, the movement’s final section is notably slow and has a peculiarly edgy and slightly disturbing quality to it, much of a piece with what has gone on before.

There is a similar reticence at the opening of the finale, not as fiercely attacked as in some rival accounts.  That holding-back, followed by relatively controlled tempi successfully racks up the tension in preparation for that problematic fugue.  As a result, the latter emerges as less of the proverbial protruding sore thumb here than is often the case.  Creative use of wide dynamics —and especially of silence—adds to the strangely unsettling and uncomfortable atmosphere and makes one wonder exactly what sort of stop-go bacchanal Tchaikovsky is trying to depict.

Coming to The Voyevoda, at first it appears that Petrenko and his forces are offering simply a very well played performance of a straightforward and relatively unchallenging piece.  But what they do with it from about 9:34 onwards is quite remarkable, with what sounds like a complete and dramatically overpowering orchestral meltdown that exactly fits the bleakly depressing storyline of an adulterous wife and a husband driven to attempt her murder.  These expertly performed final few moments raise this to far more than a mere makeweight track.

I have never heard Petrenko in the flesh but, on the basis of this disc, I can see what the critics are getting at.  Manfred may never be able to overcome its inherent flaws and inconsistencies—Tchaikovsky himself called it “an abominable piece” while Leonard Bernstein is said to have dismissed it as “trash”—but what we have here is a coherent and consistent overall conception that that does its very best for the score.  On top of that, the revitalised Liverpool orchestra plays with both flair and sensitivity and the Philharmonic Hall’s generous acoustic has been well served by producer Tim Handley and his team.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, November 2008

This recording includes two excellent and major symphonic works that represent Tchaikovsky at his dramatic, colourful best. Maestro Petrenko has the Tchaikovsky idiom down pat—this is echt Tchaikovsky—it simply does not get any better! There are not that many other versions of either work, and this superb, high-tech recording is a welcome addition to the catalogues.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2008

The arrival in Liverpool two years ago of the St. Petersburg-born conductor, Vasily Petrenko, was one of the most exciting events that has happened to UK music for many decades.

Now working under a long-term recording agreement with Naxos, his first major release confronts a catalogue so full of Manfred performances that it has to be something very special to find critical acclaim. You could point to Russian performances that have an inborn feel for their great national composer that cannot be replicated elsewhere, but none will offer an orchestra that burns more intensely with the fervor that Petrenko generates. Structurally the symphony is not ideal, but it is here held together by tempos that push forward, the first movement leading, with a sense of inevitability, to an enormous climatic moment towards its conclusion. The mercurial scherzo lowers the temperature, but with a quick pulse for the following andante, Petrenko leads to a finale that burns at white heat, the brass and percussion playing as if their lives depended upon it. But even more remarkable is the woodwind whose pungency is something special. Petrenko unashamedly uses an organ with the stops pulled out in the concluding passage, but nothing can change the work’s sense of anticlimax. Five years after embarking on the symphony, Tchaikovsky was to compose the dramatic tone-poem, The Voyevoda. It has a scenario of the husband who discovers his wife’s unfaithfulness, but having instructed his servant to shoot her, dies at the servant’s hand. A highly coloured score that provides a further vehicle for the orchestra to flaunt its brilliance. Often regarded as a difficult venue, Naxos engineers have shown Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall to be of admirable impact and clarity. A very special disc for the Naxos catalogue.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group