Tchaikovsky’s Manfred is the black sheep of his symphonic canon. Many conductors refuse to include it in performed or recorded cycles. Based on Byron’s dramatic poem, it is a strange, sprawling work, like Berlioz’s equally Byronic Harold en Italie. It’s as if he’d thrown together Francesca da Rimini and Romeo and Juliet and tried to mould them into symphonic form. The composer himself came to detest it and considered reworking the first movement into a separate work. To survive in the concert hall, Manfred requires full, red-blooded commitment… which is exactly what it received from the Philharmonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Vladimir Ashkenazy © Keith Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keith Saunders

The opening choir of three bassoons and bass clarinet signalled that this had the makings of a remarkable reading – like hysterical priests rasping out their orations, which becomes Tchaikovsky’s idée fixe. Indeed, the lower voiced instruments offered distinguished playing throughout; cellos and basses gruff and strong, woodwinds dark and earthy. By comparison, the Philharmonia’s violins occasionally sounded under-projected in the lengthy opening movement as the tormented Manfred wanders the Alps, seeking out oblivion.

Quite how any orchestra can follow Ashkenazy is a mystery. Jerky, jabbing movements propel his baton, sometimes on an upbeat, sometimes down, while cueing seems erratic. Somehow, it all seems to come together and his energetic contortions drew terrific playing from the orchestra.

The Philharmonia boasts an excellent woodwind line-up and they gave a garrulous account of the Mendelssohnian second movement’s Alpine Fairy, who appears to Manfred in a mountain waterfall. Oboist Gordon Hunt shone in the third movement’s pastoral idyll, his liquid tone full and flowing. Like Berlioz’s Harold, Tchaikovsky closes with an infernal bacchanal, but with wilder abandon – tam-tam, tambourine and the might of the RFH organ were employed – if he’d had a kitchen sink to hand, you suspect he’d have thrown that in as well. It’s all a bit “sound and fury”, but Ashkenazy marshalled his troops well, until the gentle chorale depicting Manfred finding peace in death brought the symphony to a quiet close.

If the Tchaikovsky sprawled, Scriabin’s Rêverie, which opened the concert, was the model of restraint. Lush strings sighed as dreamy ardour flickered before quickly fading away. It seemed a curious curtain-raiser to Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major, although Ashkenazy’s romantic approach lessened the stylistic distance between the two works. Soloist Eric Silberger played stylishly, with an assertive, arresting sound, employing generous vibrato. His brief first movement cadenza, full of trills and double-stopping, was dispatched with supreme confidence and panache.

The lumbering pace with which Ashkenazy launched the Adagio is far from what my ears are accustomed to hearing these days, but the big, romantic sweep allowed the music to breathe quite wonderfully, matched by Silberger’s sweet, tender tone. A brief memory lapse in the finale, momentarily throwing both orchestra and conductor, was the only blot, soon forgotten amidst the stamping and col legno of the “Turkish” episode. Silberger found lovely dark colours here, his performance growing more characterful and demonic.

There was plenty of demonic character too in his encore, Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 in A minor, sharply inflected and displayed his precocious talent. A frequent performer at Castleton Festival, Silberger dedicated his encore to Castleton’s founder, Lorin Maazel, who was originally to have conducted this concert. Listening to the technically wizardry at play, you could imagine Maazel grinning broadly in response.