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 SACD LSO0731 [47:27]

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.  

Dave Billinge 

Excellent performances of two interesting but uneven symphonies. Should appeal to those who know some Szymanowski already. 


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