In the booklet for this latest release in his ‘Tchaikovsky Project’, Semyon Bychkov puts up a spirited defence for the composer’s flawed masterpiece, but despite the committed testimony of the Czech Philharmonic, their performance doesn’t quite secure an acquittal.

Critic Vladimir Stasov came up with the idea for the work after Berlioz had conducted Harold In Italy on his visit to Russia in 1867. Stasov tried to convince Balakirev, who wasn’t so keen, but passed it on to Tchaikovsky who initially declined but later conceded after re-reading Byron’s poem while staying in the Bernese Alps where the ‘metaphysical drama’ takes place.

Byron’s semi-autobiographical tale must have struck a chord with the composer who would have identified with the self-loathing anti-hero tortured by the guilt of an unmentionable offence; his dirty little secret. Though enthused during the writing, Tchaikovsky later wished to burn all but the first movement – he obviously recognised the structural deficiencies that
critics have pointed out ever since.

It is a devil of a piece to make work in the hall and few performances convince under the scrutiny of the microphone. Unavoidably episodic due to the source material, the structure can sag under its own weight so the performances that succeed most are those with a rock solid foundation of classicist structural integrity and close tolerances.

Bychkov sees the work as an “opera without words” with leitmotivic transformation as the defining structural logic and he works hard to inflect every gesture with dramatic import. Aided by the recording’s bottom-rich balance, this is the weightiest account I have heard in a long time – the richness of string tone from the Czech players is a sensual treat.

The approach works best in the first movement; those solemn declamations are Verdian in their thundering wrath and the spacious pacing allows Bychkov to lovingly shape and colour each phrase – but, methinks he doth love too much. There is a tendency to pull back on the tempi that creates problems in the later movements.

The Scherzo is earthbound and the waterfall is carrying a lot of silt. The third movement’s tune is one of Tchaikovsky’s loveliest creations but has insufficient air flowing over its wings to generate lift. For these scenes the palette needs to lighten so that Manfred’s guilt pangs truly spoil the mood by not being foreshadowed.

The problematic finale needs the tightest rein but Bychkov gives the Czech players their head, and while sounding glorious they do ease back into an uncommitted canter – the rhythms need to snap and crack. He doesn’t convince me that Toscanini was wrong to cut the fugue. The subdued organ entry might be in the best taste but fails to satisfy musically – sometimes you just need to embrace the kitsch.