Once neglected, Tchaikovsky's Manfred has recently been championed by a younger generation of Russian conductors, chief among them Vladimir Jurowski, who scheduled the work as the closing item of his London Philharmonic Prom, a cleverly programmed evening that explored notions of Romantic alienation. The ambivalence towards the piece set in early, when Tchaikovsky himself - fearing he had exposed too much of his own sexual guilt in his portrait of Byron's agonised anti-hero - called it "abominable." Time has, of course, proved it to be nothing of the sort, though it is characterised by an emotional immediacy that can be unsettling in performance.
Jurowski's interpretation reminded us that its psychological complexity and force are as much rooted in detail as in cumulative sweep. The opening woodwind phrases were carefully moulded, yet also indicative of a soul in crisis. The phantasmagoric scherzo, depicting Manfred's encounter with the witch of the Alps, was played with quicksilver virtuosity, while the orgiastic opening to the finale was brilliant as well as wild. Yet the intensity that Jurowski brought to bear on the piece was often overpowering - nowhere more so than in the immense coda to the opening movement, and in the Andante, in which Manfred's presence fatally undermines the pastoral calm of the landscape that surrounds him.
Its companion pieces were the overture to Weber's Der Freischütz and Mahler's Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen. Both performances were very reined in. The Weber, in particular, felt over-controlled, with Jurowski only allowing the orchestra to let rip in the final peroration. Less can be more, however, when it comes to Mahler's song cycle, which was free from self-indulgence or sentimentality. Alice Coote, in beautiful voice, was the soloist, etching phrase and words with tragic, unforgettable nobility.
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