6th October 2017
In the substantial opening movement, Lento lugubre, Bychkov progressively develops an undertow of dark foreboding that gradually imbues the writing. A spellbinding tension runs through the movement as the tormented soul “Manfred is wandering alone through the Alps”. The moving Astarte section, containing passion and longing, aptly reflects Manfred’s tender portrait of his sister. In the final section, at 15:32,Bychkov obtains significant power and an unsettling tension. In the second movement, marked Vivace con spirito “The Alpine fairy appears before Manfred in the rainbow of a waterfall”. There is a reassuring affection to the glowing writing of the Waterfall vision that Bychkov conducts with clarity of understanding, creating a quite magical and colourful effect. In Bychkov’s hands the music has a buoyant Mendelssohnian quality and the sound world of the composer’s ballets, especially The Nutcracker, is never far away. Under Bychkov’s unswerving direction the mainly bucolic mood of the slow third movement where “Manfred meets mountain people” effortlessly evokes a scene of verdant Bernese alpine valleys from flower strewn pastures, to ice cold streams to gleaming mountain peaks. The impressive playing of the Czech Philharmonic feels accomplished and assured, communicating an appealing sense of the joy of nature. The Finale, where “Manfred comes to Ahriman’s Palace to seek a reunion with Astarte…” opens with an infernal orgy, a furious bacchanal in the underground dominion of the evil king Arimanes and his eventual demise. This is music of potent energy and drama in a gripping performance from Bychkov and his Czech players. At 17:13 the weighty entrance of the organ adds another dimension to this colourful work prior to the music beginning to fade away. Conducting with a strong sense of security throughout, Bychkov provides a satisfying degree of shading and ensures a splendid internal balance of sound. The Czech strings excel with unity, weight and intensity, and the glowing brass and vibrant woodwind sections are detailed and expressive …
Without hesitation I can place this majestic new Decca recording from Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic comfortably alongside the finest available accounts in the catalogue.