Tragic Overture, Op.81
Symphony No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73
London Symphony Orchestra
Barbican Hall, London
Sunday, September 23, 2012
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The second LSO concert this weekend continued Valery Gergiev’s survey of the symphonic music of Brahms and Szymanowski.
Brahms’s Tragic Overture was taken as a solemn march, weighty, throbbing and yearning, if also leaning to being somnambulistic. The deliberate tempos may have given an analysis of the notes that was fascinating – suggesting Celibidache, if without that master’s sound-and-science unification – but it all seemed somewhat under-propelled and lacking emotional sap.
Brahms’s Second Symphony’s key of D major (Tragic Overture is in D minor) and its unofficial ‘pastoral’ epithet suited Gergiev better, the first movement patiently and song-fully rolled out with a gracious lead-back to the exposition’s repeat and the stormier waters of the development and the balmy coda integrated into an equable and thoroughly fine 20-minute whole. There were some balance problems, though, woodwinds (Gergiev resisting any temptation to double them) losing out in fortissimo tuttis, trapped between a sea of strings and quite forceful brass and timpani. In quieter moments, however, there were many blown eloquences, not least from Emanuel Abbühl’s oboe, yet the slow movement passed by with a lack of emotive identification despite many beauties of phrase. Following a third movement both elegant and vigorous, the finale, for all its purpose, never quite settled and was sometimes harried, Gergiev increasing the speed for the nominally exhilarating final bars with an inorganic spurt, enough to blur them and imbalance the symphony’s equilibrium.
Karol Szymanowski’s 30-minute Second Symphony was completed in 1909 and then revised during the composer’s final years to fulfilment in 1936. It is arguably the finest of his symphonic foursome and best to think of it as being in two rather than the suggested three movements. A solo violin (Roman Simovic warmly inviting) serenades us into this distinctive expressive world, albeit one also inhabited by Max Reger, Richard Strauss, Franz Schreker and Franz Schmidt; Szymanowski, Polish by birth, was here Austro-German by inclination. The preludial first movement has its luxuriant Hollywood moments (cue Korngold), a stream of consciousness expressed through harmonic unpredictability and a range of climaxes. The large-scale ‘theme, variations and fugue’ movement that follows embraces some of Szymanowski’s loveliest ideas and most-ingenious commentaries, not least a scherzo-like section of dances (utilising a full but not excessively large orchestra with deftness and imagination) before a brusque fugue begins to wrap things up. The LSO and Gergiev did the work proud, its pithy and memorable pay-off ideally incisive and affirmative.