Szymanowski
Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35
Symphony No.3, Op.27 (Song of the Night)
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

Steve Davislim (tenor)
Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Recorded June 2009 (Violin Concerto) and March 2010 in Grosser Musikvereinssaal, Vienna
CD No: DG 477 8771
Duration: 49 minutes [plus 46 minutes for second, bonus, CD]
Reviewed: December 2010
Even at the age of 85, Pierre Boulez continues to make musical discoveries as a conductor. His first recording of the music of Szymanowski is a logical step onwards from his comparatively recent recordings and performances of Scriabin and Janáček, and as an introduction to the music of the Polish composer, this constitutes an extremely creditable release.
Handsomely bound by Deutsche Grammophon, this release contains as a considerable bonus a 15-minute interview with Boulez talking about his discovery of Szymanowski and his thoughts on the music, two essays on the composer, and photographs from the rehearsals. The essays are enjoyable, though Albert Hosp courts unintentional humour by describing the addition of a celesta in the Third Symphony as “a dollop of timbral whipped cream”.
Boulez begins the interview by talking about his induction to the music of Szymanowski through violinist Jacques Thibaud, whom he heard perform one of the Myths. Comparing it to the first time he heard Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale, Boulez explains how he was enticed by it, and how he went on to love and record the First Violin Concerto and the Third Symphony. He remarks on how there is obvious virtuosity in the violin concerto, but how in the symphony it is deeper, and harder to follow the form. “You don’t understand the work unless you understand the form” is the telling quote here.
With the Vienna Philharmonic on fine form, Boulez presides over an opulent performance of the Violin Concerto, revealing its heady orchestration in characteristically minute detail. The recording helps in this respect, spacious and reverberant but closely focussed enough to capture the chattering woodwinds at the opening, and Christian Tetzlaff’s wiry introduction. Boulez remarks on the virtuosity in the concerto, but Tetzlaff’s is not overinflated with the violin’s importance, even in the gritty cadenza. Rather soloist and orchestra are closely at one, aligned until the music gets faster, whereupon the violinist surges forward with intent. Boulez takes the music at a fast tempo, some two-and-a-half minutes quicker than Thomas Zehetmair and Sir Simon Rattle over the course of the concerto. As one might expect, the slower music does not dwell on the sensuous harmonies, and any sense of holding back is limited, Boulez preferring to push on. The sounds issued are undeniably beautiful, if a little spot-lit, with each component of the orchestra, piano and woodwind especially, brought to the fore.
While making his point about the concerto, Boulez notes how virtuosity is less obvious in the Symphony and that it is less easy to follow. Boulez’s choice of tempos is more closely aligned with those of Rattle, the performance very much a whole rather than three distinct movements. Once again the recording helps the wide scope of this music from the outset, the weightless violins’ silky tone bordering on the cinematic but wonderful to listen to, and the ensuing solo violin passages nicely projected also. What initially led Boulez to record the symphony was his fascination with the text, but Steve Davislim and the Vienna Singverein are placed rather backwards in the mix, meaning the words are relatively unclear in spite of the orchestral clarity. A real sense of drama inhabits the beginning of the third, Largo, section, and though Davislim is rather swamped by the orchestral climax, the build up to this creates a keen sense of anticipation. Boulez’s firm control throughout ensures climax points are achieved with requisite emotional intensity.
This is an interesting and largely rewarding document of an area seldom trodden by Boulez, though at times one can’t help but think the focus is more on him as an artist rather than Szymanowski as a composer.

 

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