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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Concert Overture, Op. 12 (1905) [12:07]
Symphony No 4, Op. 60 Symphonie Concertante (1932) [25:15]*
Symphony No. 2, Op. 19 (1909-10) [33:12]
Louis Lortie (piano)*
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 3 April (Symphony No. 2) and 2 July 2012, Watford Colosseum.
CHANDOS CHSA5115 [70:57]

Experience Classicsonline

Following on from their marvellous exploration of Lutoslawski’s orchestral works, Edward Gardner now enters the very different world of Karol Szymanowski in a fifth volume in their recordings of music from Poland. The review of volume four is here. Chandos released both of these symphonies in 1996 on a highly regarded disc conducted by Vassily Sinaisky and with Howard Shelley as soloist, CHAN 9478, but an online search leads me to suspect this may be out of print and I don’t have a copy for comparison. The superlative standards of Gardner’s previous volumes are very much maintained here, and you know you are in for a treat once the first bars of the early Concert Overture kick in. This was one of the works which put the young Szymanowski on the musical map, and even with the influence of Richard Strauss a clear stylistic element the convincing marks of an impassioned individual voice are unmistakable.
Fans of Szymanowski will more than likely know his Symphony No. 4 in a fine recording on EMI with Sir Simon Rattle conducting City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (see review) which is still something of a reference for its refined transparency and eloquently expressive playing. Rattle’s Stabat Mater is also not to be missed. Antoni Wit’s Warsaw forces on Naxos (see review) are also superb, the piano solo further forward in the recording balance emphasising the ‘concerto’ nature of the work. This disc also has a terrific performance of the Concert Overture. Gardner’s Chandos SACD recording is perfectly balanced, the piano a clearly audible presence and with plenty of heft in more turbulent passages, but still a part of the orchestra rather than an overblown soloist. The little touches of orchestration and instrumental solos are all perfect, including a mad clarinet in the third movement. The harmonic worlds of sweeping energy and ever-eventful repose are all keenly observed. Louis Lortie is the ideal soloist, using subtlety of touch to mix with the orchestral textures as well as stamping an authoritative touch on the first movement cadenza and other solo passages.
Szymanowski is one of those composers who can ‘turn’ those resistant to high romanticism in music and, spellbound by that opening violin solo, if you allow it to envelop you further the Symphony No. 2 will carry you away in a bubble of orchestral sensuousness and transport you to lost worlds. Antoni Wit’s recording on the Naxos label (see review) was rightly praised and remains an excellent reference, but Gardner’s is easily its equal in terms of performance. He is a little tighter in terms of tempi here and there, heightening the excitement but still allowing the sonorities to generate organic effulgence. The richness of string tone in the central Theme and Variations is superlatively captured. Neither conductor wallows in the romantic sentiment, but Gardner also has an ear for Szymanowski’s moments of dancing rhythm and witty reference, still with echoes of Richard Strauss, but as Adrian Thomas points out in the booklet notes, adding the sophistication of Berg and Schönberg to a language still drawing on the resources of Austro-German late romanticism.
This is an excellent recording of two of Szymanowski’s great symphonies. Very fine in standard stereo, the added dimension of SACD 5.0 channel surround is something which turns these opulent scores into a truly visceral and emotive experience. I very much look forward to seeing which works come out next in this series.
Dominy Clements

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