Put fifty composers’ names in a hat. Mix them up. Pick out two. That’s probably not how the LSO and Valery Gergiev did it, but if Karol Szymanowski and Johannes Brahms do not seem to have much in common, at least they each wrote four symphonies and that makes for neat concert planning. The four-concert cycle has already been aired at the Edinburgh Festival and now reaches London and is showing until Christmas with a few overseas diversions along the way. As a bonus, London gets Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater and Brahms’s A German Requiem at the end of March.
To begin at the beginning. Szymanowski (1882-1937) didn’t much care for his First Symphony (1907). He wrote and had performed the outer movements, immediately withdrew them and didn’t need to write the middle one. What he left by the wayside he didn’t destroy. So here was the LSO in persuasive form doing full justice to hot-house music that owes most to Max Reger and breathes similar and contemporaneous air to Richard Strauss’s Elektra and Salome and to Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. Add in the seminal chromaticism of Tristan und Isolde. In fact, with a movement missing (or not), the two that survive make a compact similar-length pairing (nine minutes each), both fast but with slow movement and scherzo elements and not without their own fragrance, lightness and insouciance. The problem is the lack of distinctive themes and a tendency to get bogged down in sinewy counterpoint although Szymanowski’s handling of a large but not extravagant orchestra is assured. The journey of the work is on the tortuous side, so the forceful conclusion seems too easy won, but this performance certainly did its best for this unloved creation, not quite the “monster” that Szymanowski believed it to be.
What a difference a few years makes. To 1916 and Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto (there are two). Present now is a very strong and individual profile, the orchestra used more airily and colourfully (and including piano and celesta). The music is enchanted, rapturous and fantastical. After a slightly vague opening, the LSO and Gergiev offered a detailed and dynamic commentary to Janine Jansen’s imploring of the sweet melodies and her charged eroticisms. (Nicola Benedetti played the concerto in Edinburgh.) Jansen’s was an electric and probing performance, her impeccable technique serving an all-consuming interpretation (the score in front of her but an aide-memoire
It was touch and go if there would be enough applause to bring Jansen back for a third time, but she just made it for an encore involving the LSO's leader Roman Simovic. Their rich-sounding violins intertwined eloquently in the impressive first movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata in C (Opus 56).
Gergiev and the LSO closed the concert with a powerful and trenchant account of Brahms 1 but with no lack of expressiveness. (Not having the now-present eight double basses for Szymanowski’s symphony was a surprise.) If Gergiev was ‘traditional’ regarding accelerando
and transitions, and there were no particular revelations, it was nevertheless a grand performance, all of the LSO’s string-players on parade. The first movement was given with motive and extended with its exposition being repeated (not entirely convincingly, but it’s a difficult ‘return’), then the slow movement (with Andante becoming adagio) was shot through with deep feeling, the emotional burden placed on Juan Pechuan Ramirez’s oboe, Chris Richards’s clarinet and Simovic’s violin. And, after an intermezzo third movement both gambolling and vigorous, the great finale stole in to be dramatic, noble and triumphant, Gergiev detouring occasionally from the line for poetic purposes and not necessarily nailing the coda in the prescribed one tempo. Still, over the 50 minutes there was much vibrancy and sentiment to engage with, underpinned and punctuated by the excellent timpani-playing of Antoine Bedewi. In many ways this was a gloriously old-fashioned performance of a masterpiece, malleable and meaningful, and that’s authentic enough.