Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Symphony No.3 in B flat major Song of the Night Op.27 (1914-16) [23:49]
Symphony No.4 Symphonie Concertante Op.60 (1932) [23:01]
Stabat Mater Op.53 (1925-6) [23:03]
Sally Matthews (soprano), Ekaterina Gubanova (mezzo), Toby Spence (tenor), Kostas Smorignas (bass-baritone), Denis Matsuev (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Valery Gergiev
rec. Barbican Hall, London, December 2012 and March 2013
SACD Surround reviewed.
LSO LIVE SACD LSO0739 [69:53]

Karol Szymanowski composed four symphonies, the last having a concertante role for piano. This disc is the second of a pair which, unusually, includes all four (see review of the other two symphonies). Also on this disc is the more frequently recorded Stabat Mater. The performances were prepared for the Barbican in 2012 and 2013 when Gergiev and the LSO presented these works alongside the symphonies of Brahms. Having reviewed the first disc I find my technical comments need repetition. The engineers once again cope with the Barbican acoustic by giving us the orchestra rather than the hall. Again I cannot hear any reflection from its walls. The other missing sound is that of the audience whose presence goes completely undetected, even after the rabble-rousing end to the Symphonie Concertante. The orchestra sounds detailed, with a wide dynamic range and a very wide frequency response. The chorus is a little remote as are the solo singers. The pianist is fairly closely miked. The recording level is low so expect to turn the volume up. The rear channels are subtle to the point of irrelevance. The notes are again very good.
I noted previously my liking for his masterpiece, the opera King Roger, the first of the two Violin Concertos, his Third Symphony The Song of the Night, recently heard at the Proms, and the Stabat Mater. With this disc I have been able to reacquaint myself with the latter two. Indeed the review copy arrived along with another recording of the Stabat Mater from the Chandos series conducted by Edward Gardner so comparisons are inevitable. There is little to choose as regards the orchestral playing and choral singing save that the LSO Chorus sounds bigger than the BBC Symphony Chorus. Gergiev takes much the same time overall as Gardner (see review). The big differences are to be found in the female soloists and in the recordings in which Chandos come out best. In the present performance both Sally Matthews and Ekaterina Gubanova have just a little too much vibrato for my liking and neither voice sounds as clear as the competition. The work is beautiful and Gergiev has the full measure of its 23 gorgeous minutes.
The two symphonies are very welcome. It is good to have new recordings. My previous references were made between twenty and fifty years ago so these have the field to themselves in my collection. Having been greatly impressed by the Third at this year's Proms it was good to listen again so soon. A recording, however clean, made in the Barbican, is never going to have the impact of a live performance heard from the front centre of the arena at the Albert Hall. The latter was overwhelming; this recording does not recreate that experience but it is very good indeed and includes the excellent Toby Spence as tenor soloist. The Symphony can be compared with Scriabin and with Ravel's Daphnis in its use of exotic sounds and a chorus but the result is uniquely Szymanowski and very compelling. The Fourth is really a piano concerto and even has a barnstorming finale à la Bartók crossed with Rachmaninov which Szymanowski regularly encored. Here, without an audience reaction, we have little feeling of that sort of excitement. The piece is unusually active compared to the other works. Szymanowski does include many contemplative and mystic moments but by his standards this is a really busy piece and thus that much easier to enjoy. At this price this well filled disc is a very worthwhile purchase. I just wonder what the BBCSO/Gardner Third and Fourth will sound like. 

Dave Billinge 

Excellent performances of three of Szymanowski's best works but a glance at the competition on Chandos will be needed. 


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