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Recordings of the Month


From Ocean’s Floor


Conner Riddle Songs

Rodzinski Sibelius

Of Innocence and Experience


Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Symphony No. 3 in B flat major, Song of the Night, Op. 27* (1914-16) [23:49]
Stabat Mater, Op. 53** (1925-26) [23:03]
Symphony No. 4, Symphonie Concertante, Op. 60*** (1932) [23:01]
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Symphony No. 3 in B flat major, Song of the Night, Op. 27* (1914-16) [23:49]
Stabat Mater, Op. 53** (1925-26) [23:03]
Symphony No. 4, Symphonie Concertante, Op. 60*** (1932) [23:01]
rec. live, 11 and 18 December 2012*, 30-31 March 2013**, 12 and 19 December 2012***, Barbican, London, UK
Texts and translations are included.
LSO LIVE LSO0739 [69:53]

There was a time, not all that many years ago, when Szymanowski was largely the property of Polish musicians. Then in the early 1990s, Simon Rattle changed all that. He set the bar very high in his acclaimed series of recordings of Szymanowski masterworks. Recently, however, the Polish composer’s reputation has grown so that now there are more choices out there for the record collector. Antoni Wit has done his fellow Pole justice in his Naxos recordings, and more recently Edward Gardner has entered the fray for Chandos. Now it is Valery Gergiev’s turn. These recordings are taken from a series of London Symphony concerts where Szymanowski was paired with Brahms. The general critical opinion of those concerts was that Gergiev is much better suited to Szymanowski than to Brahms. The volume under review here is the second that LSO Live has released, the first containing the Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. My yardstick for the particular music on this second volume is that of Rattle’s EMI recordings, which I have treasured now for a number of years. 

The Symphony No. 3, called ‘Song of the Night,’ belongs to the period of Szymanowski’s first maturity characterized by thick orchestration and heady romanticism, influenced by Scriabin, French Impressionism, and Islamic song he heard from a trip he undertook to North Africa in 1914. Scored for large orchestra, chorus, and solo tenor, the symphony is more of a cantata than a symphony. Szymanowski took the text of a poem by a Sufi poet from Persia that he found in a collection of German translations, which were in turn rendered into Polish by the composer’s friend, the poet Tadeusz Miciński. Rattle and his City of Birmingham forces captured this perfumed atmosphere perfectly. Gergiev, in a somewhat drier acoustic, also does very well, though without the lushness of the Rattle account. Because of the acoustic the intricacies of the orchestration are more apparent in the new version, though the Rattle recording has a deeper, more resonant bass. The solo horn, which has an important role throughout the work, is especially fine here as it also is in Rattle’s recording. Gergiev’s orchestra and chorus are both splendid, as is Toby Spence as the tenor soloist. If anything, I prefer him to Jon Garrison on the earlier recording-but by only a small margin. Having read the reviews of the concerts from which these recordings were taken, I expected that he might be overwhelmed by the orchestra at times. That this does not happen I suspect is due to the miracle of recording and adjustments made after the fact. In any case, forthis particular work it is case of “swings and roundabouts,” as my British colleagues would say, when it comes to preferring Rattle or Gergiev. Both are excellent. I found I had to boost the volume slightly on the LSO recording for it to have as muchpresence as theEMI. I listened to the disc on my usual stereo setup, so cannot comment on the advantages or disadvantages of surround sound.
The second work on the CD, the Stabat Mater, is without doubt my favorite piece by Szymanowski and one of the great choral works of the twentieth century. Employing the vernacular, rather than Latin, it has something in common with such other Eastern European masterpieces as Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass and Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus. However, unlike those two works, its scoring is more modest and mood generally more subdued - except for a couple of shattering climaxes. It is also quite a contrast from the thickly scored Third Symphony and has a certain austerity in keeping with the text. Szymanowski used a Polish translation of the Latin text in line with his nationalistic preferences. The Stabat Mater is indeed a beautiful and special composition and requires the right kind of soprano soloist leading off in the first movement like a voice from heaven. Rattle has the perfect soloist in Elzbieta Szmytka with her light, pure soprano voice. I admired her singing in Pierre Boulez’s recording with the Chicago Symphony of the Glagolitic Mass where she was able to show the full range of her vocal qualities. The Stabat Mater does not require as much from the soprano and a certain reticence is required that Szmytka delivers with perfection. Unfortunately, Gergiev has the wrong sort of soprano in this new recording. Sally Matthews is just too heavy with a pronounced vibrato that detracts from the work. Furthermore, you can hear Gergiev grunting here and there in the first section that also spoils the mood. Otherwise, chorus and orchestra are fine here and throughout the work where there is a good deal of chanting and some wonderful a cappella singing. Rattle also has a fine mezzo-soprano, Florence Quivar, leading the third section of the work. Gergiev’s Ekaterina Gubanova is good, but not a match for Quivar and again singing with more vibrato than suits the music. Both Matthews and Gubanova are just too operatic for my taste in this piece and their enunciation of the words is cloudy. Both bass soloists, John Connell for Rattle and Kostas Smoriginas (a last-minute stand-in for Gerald Finley) are up to the task. I have heard only brief excerpts from Edward Gardner’s new recording, but based on those, he also has the right sort of soloists for this work. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine anyone bettering Rattle in this work. 

The Symphony No. 4, subtitled Symphonie Concertante, is really a piano concerto in all but name. It exemplifies the further development in Szymanowski’s career toward a simpler style and one influenced by the rhythms of the folk music of Poland’s Tatra Mountains. This work belongs to the same world as the concertos of Prokofiev and Bartók, though it still sounds like pure Szymanowski in its melodic elements. It may not be as virtuosic as the concertos of those composers - Szymanowski composed it so he could play the piano part and did not consider himself as a virtuoso - but it is quite pianistic. The work became one of the few works of the composer to gain popularity during his lifetime. Simon Rattle’s account has Leif Ove Andsnes as the piano soloist and it originally accompanied his recording of Szymanowski’s operatic masterpiece, King Roger. It has since been reissued on a separate disc with the two violin concertos. Although I appreciated their account of this symphony, I never really warmed to the piece. Clearly there is nothing wrong with their performance or interpretation; they obviously meet its demands well. Turning to the new version here with Denis Matsuev and Gergiev, I find that I like the work a great deal. For one thing these artists are more incisive than those on the EMI recording and shave off a minute and a half from the Rattle account. Also, the drier acoustic that could work against the earlier works of the composer is more fitting here. Performance-wise, there is little to choose between them, but overall I prefer Gergiev and Matsuev to Rattle and Andsnes. Matsuev excels in this music and his piano tone is crystal clear. The London Symphony play their part equally well with much orchestral detail coming through winningly.
So, you have a dilemma. If your primary interest is in the Stabat Mater, then I would stick with Rattle. If, however, the Symphony No. 4 is more your cup of tea, this new recording would be hard to beat. As I noted above, the two accounts of the Symphony No. 3 are about equal in my opinion. As a further enticement, there are detailed programme notes on the works by Adrian Thomas, biographies of the musicians, and a listing of the LSO members. One small thing I should point out is that some of the timings for individual tracks are off for both the Stabat Mater and the Third Symphony.
Leslie Wright 

See also review by Dave Billinge