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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Symphony No.3 in f minor, Op.27 (The Song of the Night) (1916), for tenor solo, mixed choir, and large orchestra [26:03]
Love Songs of Hafiz, Op.26 (1911), for voice and orchestra  [21:06]
Symphony No.1, Op.15 (1906-7) [18:55]
Ben Johnson (tenor)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. Watford Colosseum, Maida Vale Studios, London, Fairfield Halls, Croydon; 2013/14.
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as SACD and 24/96 stereo download.
CHANDOS CHSA5143 SACD [65:54]

The latest release in the Chandos Szymanowski series features the well-known Symphony No.3 alongside less well-known music. Perhaps in order to encourage us to listen to Symphony No.1, Chandos have chosen to couple these recordings differently from most of their rivals: Nos. 1 and 2, and 3 and 4 are together on two LSO Live recordings (Gergiev); 3 and 4 are coupled on Naxos (Stryja and Wit, blu-ray) and, with other Szymanowski works, on EMI/Warner’s super-budget 4-CD set (Rattle), while it’s Nos. 2 and 3 on Decca (Dorati) and on Naxos’s CD of the Wit performances. No other current recording offers Nos. 1 and 3 together.

The new Chandos received a warm welcome from Dominy Clements (CHSA5143 — review). Like him I think that Antoni Wit’s Naxos recordings, differently coupled, are not superseded, especially as they are also available on blu-ray audio — review and review — but I also thought that the Chandos recordings just have the edge. I have to take Szymanowski’s highly spiced music in small doses but I liked the Wit performances, which went a considerable way to converting me to the cause of a composer whom I didn’t know at all well enough — review — and the blu-ray sound is very good without being special.

The chief competition in Symphony No.3 comes from Simon Rattle on that 4-CD Warner/EMI compilation (5146742 — review) which I streamed from Qobuz. As Dominy Clements notes, Gardner is inclined to hold back a little more than Rattle and perhaps for that reason, though I enjoyed both, the new recording would be my preferred choice.

The Love Songs of Hafiz are similarly exotic works — hardly surprising when Hafiz succeeded Rumi as the reigning Sufi poet — and they too receive excellent performances. In neither work does Ben Johnson make the music sound over-sweet. I’ve seen it suggested that his voice is not a natural fit for Szymanowski, but his failure or refusal to sound too fruity may be another reason why I liked these accounts of both works.

There’s a special challenge in performing works which their composers disowned, such as the Grieg Symphony and Dvořák’s early symphonies, for all of which more than reasonable cases have been made on record. I have a particularly soft spot for Dvořák’s first symphony, The Bells of Zlonice, another work abandoned by its composer which I got to know years ago from a Supraphon recording conducted by Vaclav Neumann. Szymanowski’s First Symphony is such a work and Edward Gardner and his team make a strong case for it here. Such music needs a special touch — the Naxos recording of the Dvořák directed by Stephen Gunzenhauser falls somewhat short of convincing me as Neumann did, and other recordings of the Szymanowski that I’ve tried didn’t quite do it for me as well as Gardner. It’s a bit overblown in places, but that’s the composer’s fault, not that of the performers.

I listened to the SACD and the 24-bit download from theclasssicalshop.net (CHAN5143); both are excellent, with nothing to choose between them. I imagine that the multi-channel layer of the SACD and the Studio Surround download cope even better with the dense textures of the First Symphony, but if you don’t need surround-sound, the ‘ordinary’ 24-bit download, the mp3 and 16-bit lossless downloads are all good. I suggest you follow the advice which theclassicalshop.net now give to use the free iGetter for downloading the zip files from this source. It tolerates interrupted downloads, which is especially important when downloading the large time-consuming 24-bit files.

The booklet, with texts and translations, is almost too thick to slot back into the CD case — it might have fitted better if Chandos were to use the round-shouldered cases in which others place SACDs. I’m pleased to report that it comes with the download from the classicalshop.net — like several of my colleagues I’m currently on the warpath against non-provision of booklets: see Dan Morgan’s recent article on the subject.

Whichever way you obtain this, it’s well worth having. If you haven’t yet gone for the Second and Fourth Symphonies on its predecessor, that should be your first port of call. If you already have that, you will probably need no urging to buy the new recording.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Dominy Clements

Work details
Symphony 3: first performed 1921; on a poem from the second Divan by Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), translated into Polish by Tadeusz Micinski (1873-1918)
Love songs: on poetry paraphrased after Hafiz by Hans Bethge (1876-1946)

Getting to Know … The Symphonies & Concertos of Karol Szymanowski by David Barker