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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Symphony No 3, Op. 27 The Song of the Night (1916) [26:00]*
Love Songs of Hafiz, Op. 26 (1922) [21:08]*
Symphony No. 1, Op. 15 (1909) [18:57]
Ben Johnson (tenor)*
BBC Symphony Chorus (Symphony No. 3)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2013/14, Watford Colosseum; Maida Vale Studio 1, London; Fairfield Halls, Croydon

I have been very admiring of Edward Gardner’s Chandos recordings, and the previous Szymanowski release of the second and fourth symphonies (see review) is very much the equal of the best of the alternatives.

Comparison with alternatives is all part of an examination of this kind of release, and the Third Symphony is part of one of EMI’s ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series, with Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. This is in any case a must-have for the wonderful Stabat Mater, but this symphony is also superbly performed and recorded. Rattle is more overtly opulent, Gardner more inclined to hold back on dynamics, allowing solos such as the big violin solo in the first movement a bit more space to vary its own dynamics. Subtle colours such as the touches from the piano also seem a little more transparent, but these are all small points of detail. The BBC Symphony Chorus is however more refined and capable of magical effects than the CBSO Singers, and while Rattle can create tremendous substance in sounds which roll over you, Gardner’s lighter touch is more involving. Soloist Ben Johnson is a sensitive artist and also lighter in tone than Jon Garrison for Rattle, which is more a question of taste but seems appropriate.

Ben Johnson is very much the star of the less frequently heard Love Songs of Hafiz, a song cycle which deserves to join those by Mahler. The Arabian exoticism in this music is more that of atmosphere than of content, and this highly romantic and emotionally charged idiom is by no means unfamiliar from this composer or others following this tradition in this period. All texts are given in the original German and translated into English, and it is fascinating to hear how Szymanowski colours the moods and images in Hans Bethge’s translations of these ancient poems. There are many striking moments in this work, and it is by no means to be underestimated.

Szymanowski’s First Symphony is another work with a few significant competitors around. Valery Gergiev’s entire cycle on LSO Live label (see review) is worthy of attention, but these live recordings from the notably tricky Barbican Hall acoustic are less disciplined affairs than these Chandos studio recordings, and even with the positive qualities of live energy and SACD sound I wouldn’t favour Gergiev over Gardner. Antoni Wit’s Naxos cycle from Poland is a very good budget choice (see review), has an authentic vibe and plenty of magical moments, but you don’t get quite the detail of orchestral colour as from Chandos if we are talking absolute overall quality.

If you are already collecting Edward Gardner’s distinguished and growing Chandos catalogue then you will need no second bidding to acquire this fine recording. Of the recordings of any of these pieces it would be my first choice on all fronts. Szymanowski can be a bit too heavy and romantically perfumed for today’s tastes and as a starting kit I would point you towards the wonderful Stabat Mater by way of an introduction. The Third Symphony is a different beast, but with those stunning choral entries and moving harmonies is another of Szymanowski’s works which, with a little education of the ear, soon becomes one to treasure. Let Edward Gardner and the BBCSO be your guides, and succumb to bewitchment.

Dominy Clements