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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Symphony No 1 in F minor, Op.15 [17:47]*
Symphony No.2 in B flat major, Op.19 [29:40]**
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. 22 September 2012, 11 October 2012* and 23 September, 13 October 2012**
Barbican, London
LSO LIVE LSO0731 SACD [47:27]

Many people would consider Karol Szymanowski the most important Polish composer since Chopin. It comes as a surprise to learn that many of his works are seldom performed or recorded. Gergiev’s championing of this composer is commendable and very fitting for a conductor who has scored numerous accolades for his recordings of Scriabin, a composer whose otherworldly and ecstatic musical traits find echoes in the music of his Polish counterpart.
 
This recording derives from performances of the two symphonies given in the Barbican, London in September and October 2012 to mark the 75th anniversary of the composer’s death in 1937. The LSO presented all four symphonies, the two violin concertos and other works in concert, pairing them with works by Brahms. Symphonies 3 and 4 and the Stabat Mater are due for release.
 
Szymanowski’s First Symphony was completed in 1907. Only the two outer movements were realised. Regarded later by the composer as a youthful indiscretion, he withdrew it after its first performance in 1909. Heavily influenced by Strauss, it has been criticized for its dense orchestration, intricate textures, opaque chromatic idiom, all framed within the context of an overblown romanticism. Yet fast-forward the clock three years and the Second Symphony, also in two movements, shows a composer who has grown both in confidence and experience. With its theme and variation second movement, the influence of Reger can readily be detected, together with impressionistic input from both Debussy and Ravel.
 
Gergiev and the LSO certainly meet head-on the challenges that this music presents. Many recognize a looseness and lack of formal structure in these works. Gergiev has an innate understanding of their shape, direction and narrative. Teasing out the complex orchestral detail, he is able to highlight and underline the orchestral colours of these lush scores. The strings are particularly ravishing. There is both passion and drama together with expressive lyricism. I certainly get the feeling that conductor and orchestra are deeply committed to and really enjoy performing this music. There is a life-affirming fervour throughout.
 
Closely miked, the recording has a very wide dynamic spectrum. Though an SACD, I was only able to listen to the performances in stereo, rather than in surround sound. For those not too familiar with Szymanowski’s music, this is as good a starting point as any. As for me, I can’t wait for the next instalment.
 
Stephen Greenbank 

See also review by Dave Billinge