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 Recording of the Week  Valery Gergiev and the LSO begin a cycle of Szymanowski symphonies

One of the delights of writing these weekly thoughts is always the opportunity to get to know new pieces of music, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve made such a discovery this week, with a recording from Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra of the first two symphonies by the Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski.

Valery Gergiev
Valery Gergiev

I hope it won’t be too controversial for me to suggest that until relatively recently his music was fairly unknown outside Poland, but that he has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. Although perhaps best known for his two violin concertos and his opera, King Roger, he also composed four symphonies. Gergiev and the LSO presented all four of them in concerts last year, paired with the four symphonies by Johannes Brahms. I remember speaking to one of the orchestra’s members about the concerts shortly after they had taken place, and he said that it had been quite a challenge to rehearse and perform all of these symphonies in such a short space of time, so it is to the orchestra’s great credit that the results are as outstanding as they are!

Szymanowski himself regarded his First Symphony, completed in 1907, as somewhat unsuccessful, calling it a “contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral monster”, and later disowned it. However, while I don’t think it’s on a par with some of his later masterpieces such as the Second Violin Concerto or the Stabat Mater, there is a lot of really wonderful music here, with some fantastic woodwind writing (the LSO clarinets excel themselves on this recording), and a pleasing selection of monumental brass outbursts! Stylistically it reminded me very much of early Schoenberg, with the kind of tormented, angst-ridden orchestral writing that can be found in the latter’s Pelleas und Melisande or Verklärte Nacht, for instance.

Composed just a couple of years after the First Symphony, the Second Symphony has an even more unusual structure. It’s cast in just two movements, like the First, but its second movement consists principally of a theme and six variations, followed by a fugal finale. If the First Symphony reminded me of Schoenberg, then the Second has definite echoes of Richard Strauss (I’ve no idea if it was a deliberate quotation on Szymanowski’s part, but the finale’s fugue subject sounded extremely reminiscent of a motive from Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica). Much more lush and sweeping in style than the First, it opens, somewhat unusually, with a solo violin, here beautifully played by leader Roman Simovic.

Speaking of ravishing string playing, both symphonies allow ample opportunity for the LSO strings to show off their rich, deep sound, especially in some of the more tender, lyrical sections. Szymanowski gives them some absolutely scrumptious music, and combined with some generous portamento it sounds as if the strings are really enjoying every moment of these wonderful passages. The volatile nature of both works, but especially the First Symphony, suits Gergiev extremely well, and as I mentioned before there are some deliciously explosive moments featuring strident trumpets and manic woodwind runs!

If you’re curious about exploring a new composer, and you like big, powerful, ecstatic orchestral music then this is a great disc to try out. The remaining symphonies will also be released on LSO Live in the next few months, and I for one am very much looking forward to hearing the rest of the cycle!

Szymanowski: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2

London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC