The bass clarinet had been moved to sit beside the bassoons, and the opening reveals why: together they all play Manfred’s theme. The effect is reedy (of course) but reedy in a way that suggests an organ. I wonder if Tchaikovsky had any intention that this would be echoed in grander terms at the very end of the symphony where he brings in a reed organ (these being more common in Russia than pipe organs). No way of knowing, and in any case this performance ends differently (see page 16 here).
One of my friends, an erstwhile horn player, isn’t fond of Tchaikovsky. Apparently his horn parts are not what you’d call “grateful”. But in this symphony they have their shining moments and more than a few occasions where they’re called upon to play pavillon en l’air – very impressive. I’m not convinced that with horns (as compared to other brass or woodwinds) this direction makes much difference. But it certainly attracts the eye and thereby the ear.
The scherzo second movement: wonderful pointillistic effects, very interesting. In his pre-concert talk the Maestro said that this movement had no real melody and no real accompaniment. That’s true at first, but in the end Tchaikovsky simply can’t resist “the big tune” – it’s what he does best, glorious unending melody. This movement ends with a magical effect like water droplets (two harps, pizzicato violins…). It’s as if we’re not really up in the Alps with the fairy after all, but are watching everything from inside a conservatory on a rainy afternoon, perhaps with Byron's poem to hand.*
Another observation from the Maestro’s talk: he made us laugh with a lovely analogy of Tchaikovsky “always good with his homework”, the idea being that in his numbered symphonies he did his level best to follow the model of Beethoven [and his German successors, Schumann for example] and in Manfred to adopt the model of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Which in turn made me laugh when the finale reached the point of the almost obligatory fugue. For what could be more like musical “homework” than the most academic of compositional techniques? But you know it’s no ordinary fugue when the tambourine makes an entry. (The finale is a bacchanal after all.)
Tchaikovsky’s numbered symphonies may be more balletic, but the Manfred is more theatrical. And I don’t just mean that it has a narrative program – the theatre is built in to the musical effects, and “effective” it is.
*After the second movement had evaporated to its conclusion the coughers entered in full force, as if they had been forced to sit in the rain themselves. What is intriguing is that after the Associate Concertmaster broke a string in the third movement, necessitating a longer-than-usual break before the finale, the audience sat in near hushed silence while he changed his string and retuned. Which just goes to show that rarely does anyone need to cough between movements (at least no more than at any other point in the performance) – it's purely a nervous mannerism brought on by the discomfort of nothing happening.