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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Symphony No. 1 [17:47]
Symphony No. 2 [29:40]
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, Barbican, London, September and October 2012
LSO LIVE LSO0731 [47:27]

Call me a Philistine, but I have never “got” the music of Szymanowski, and that’s not for lack of trying. I bought EMI’s set of Simon Rattle’s complete Szymanowski recordings and listened to that lots of times. I saw King Roger at the Edinburgh Festival back in 2008 - and prepared hard for it in advance - and I’ve heard the violin concertos in concert several times. I even downloaded the iPad app to see if I could learn something from those who really profess to love him. His music has never struck a chord with me, though. In fact, I find his heavily perfumed sound-world alienating rather than enticing. Those swirling clouds of notes strike me as the product of someone trying too hard, with an orchestral texture too clouded with its own cleverness and melodies that never really materialise … and seldom have much to them when they do.
Determined not to give up, and thinking there must be more to Szymanowski than my limited interpretation, I went to hear Valery Gergiev conducting a Szymanowski series with the LSO at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival. Gergiev decided to pair the four Szymanowski symphonies with the four symphonies of Brahms, devoting a concert to each pairing - plus something else by either composer. I thought it was an interesting idea, but I was puzzled as to whether it would work. After all, on the surface the two composers’ approaches to composition and musical structure seem to be as far apart from one another as it’s possible to get. I enjoyed Gergiev’s Brahms but the Szymanowski left me feeling completely cold, and not a little bemused; the Third Symphony was OK, but that might just have been because of the scale of the vocal forces it required. I also thought that the pairing with Brahms was misguided, uninformative and often downright silly, the coupling revealing nothing about either composer.
Was I wrong? Well, probably: greater musical minds than mine argue vehemently on Szymanowski’s behalf. So I approached this disc of the first two symphonies - recorded when Gergiev and the LSO repeated the Edinburgh series at London’s Barbican - with an open mind to see if I had made a mistake. On listening to it, though, I don’t think I did. Even if making allowances for the composer’s youth and symphonic inexperience when he wrote these works, they still strike me as directionless, indulgent and often frankly unappealing. The First Symphony slithers into existence with a string line in search of a destination that it never really finds, and the wilting theme that appears about four minutes in just seems to dissolve, though it does yield an attractive violin solo, albeit briefly. The second movement is remarkably (suspiciously?) similar in character to the first with its floating fragments of sound that never seem to congeal into very much, despite regular exotic solos from the players, particularly the winds. When, about three minutes in, a big melody tries to assert itself it is brought to an abrupt halt and more fluttery fragments take over. The ending then is so absurdly overblown that it sounds as though it has been pasted on from another work.
The Second Symphony appears to promise a more definite structure, with three distinct movements and a second movement which includes a set of variations - a Brahmsian parallel, perhaps. This movement does, to be fair, cohere fairly successfully, and it opens with a beautifully rich passage for the strings. The first movement begins with an attractive enough, slightly drunken line on the solo violin which is taken up by the rest of the strings; indeed, some of the string writing is appealingly luxurious. The swooping nature of the music becomes rather repetitious after a while, though, and the finale, which claims to be fugal, sounded to me like an ill-disciplined mess.
I’m sure that the playing of the orchestra is excellent throughout, and many people will appreciate having the first two symphonies together on one disc, but I think I’ve come to accept that I’m just irredeemably cloth-eared when it comes to this composer. There was very little on the disc that I enjoyed and even less that would make me want to go back to it. More enlightened listeners than me will doubtless disagree, and they’re probably right; but I think my days of trying Szymanowski are over, at least for the time being. I’m putting away my Rattle set for a few years - never say never - and I won’t be seeking out the second volume in this LSO series. Maybe one day ...
Simon Thompson

See also reviews by Stephen Greenbank and Dave Billinge