Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Symphony No. 1 in F minor Op.15 (1906-7) [17:47]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major Op.19 (1909-10 rev. 1927-36) [29:40]
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Barbican Hall, London, September-October 2012
SACD Surround reviewed
LSO LIVE LSO0731
Karol Szymanowski composed four symphonies, the
last having a concertante role for piano. This disc is the first of
a pair which will, unusually, include all four. They are drawn from
the performances prepared for the Barbican in 2012 and 2013 when Gergiev
and the LSO presented these works each paired with the symphonies of
Brahms. The engineers are well used to the oddities of the Barbican
acoustic by now and these recordings solve its problems by giving us
the orchestra somehow without the hall. I have listened carefully and
I cannot hear any reflection from the walls of London's leading concert
venue. Nonetheless the orchestra sounds detailed, with a wide dynamic
range and a very wide frequency response. It is without doubt the best
of the four Szymanowski Second Symphony recordings I have heard from
a technical point of view. There is one oddity: the recording level
is very low so expect to turn the volume up a fair bit, but watch out
for the bass drum.
The notes are very good and seem to lack only one thing and that is
an explanation of what exactly the composer did to the 2nd Symphony
during the nine years over which he revised it. Maciejewski's study
only says that he re-orchestrated the work in 1936. For me the works
which best represent Szymanowski are his masterpiece, the opera King
Roger, the first of the two Violin Concertos, his gorgeous 3rd Symphony
The Song of the Night, recently heard at the Proms, and the Stabat
Mater also due on Gergiev's other disc.
I am well aware that for some Polish music-lovers he is second only
to Chopin among their most important composers so an open mind is required.
There is a lot of good music to hear among his piano pieces, quartets,
ballets and songs as well as the orchestral works. By his death in 1937
he had published 62 opuses. Hearing the First Symphony, which he declared
he didn't like, rather suggests he was right. It has much of the exoticism
one expects but lacks a sense of direction. It is in fact an incomplete
torso which he abandoned after writing just two movements. Its first
performance at the Warsaw Philharmonic drew this from one of his great
supporters: 'a poor parrot-like imitation of Wagnerian and Straussian
monstrosities'; one hates to think what his detractors said! All strength
to Gergiev for allowing us to judge for ourselves by presenting the
best possible case for it.
The Second Symphony with its unusual opening for solo violin is much
recorded and this performance, whilst lacking the swirling urgency that
the Warsaw Philharmonic under Rowicki brought in their late 1970s recording,
is so well played that even the curiously archaic variations sound good.
Certainly these forces provide much of the sensuality and ecstatic lyricism
that commentators have heard in Szymanowski's works.
The disc is not well filled but LSO Live issues are very moderately
priced. Interested collectors will not feel short-changed. One looks
forward to hearing the more imaginative Third and Fourth Symphonies
on the other release. It is perhaps appropriate to note that Chandos
have just released their second SACD of Szymanowski's orchestral music,
part of their well-reviewed ‘Muzyka Polska’ series, with
Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.