When is a symphony cycle not a symphony cycle? When it is by Karol Szymanowski would seem a plausible answer, his four works in the genre being as oddly assorted in themselves and as a sequence as any from a major composer. The opposite, in fact, of those by Johannes Brahms – which might be the reason why Valery Gergiev has chosen to juxtapose them in the central project of the London Symphony Orchestra’s current season, so giving audiences the opportunity to hear two pieces that seldom (if ever) appear in UK programmes as well as the chance to decide if this juxtaposing is merely one of symphonic tokenism as against cohesion, or whether a subtler interplay of similarities and contrasts is likely to emerge in the process.
It would be interesting to know whether Szymanowski’s First Symphony (1907) had appeared in any British concert-hall prior to this programme’s first hearing last month. Certainly it was little more than a biographical reference prior to the Marco Polo recording that appeared in the mid-1980s, with a slightly earlier EMI set opting to omit it. While there seems no doubt that its 1909 premiere was a failure, whether an intended central movement was left unfinished or tried out in rehearsal is unclear – resulting in a two-movement work which leaves behind the Straussian opulence of the earlier Concert Overture for a reckless and, as it proves, unsustainable amalgam of contrapuntal intricacy and harmonic density.
That said, the opening Allegro moderato unfolds as a relatively orthodox sonata-form design whose tardily differentiated themes are not so much integrated as thrown together in a brutal development, before an agitated reprise and a coda that leaves the matter of tonal resolution hanging in mid-air. The ‘finale’ then proceeds as an erratic sonata-rondo whose main theme is increasingly submerged by pungent episodes that lead to a seismic central climax before heading to a culmination that is more fractious than decisive. The LSO had the measure of the music’s combative intensity and the fusion of Reger, Schoenberg and Scriabin, but these 18 minutes left a distinctly equivocal impression.
Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto (1916) came as a release in most respects. Long a rarity in the concert hall – at least outside Poland – the piece has now established a strong presence, not least through the advocacy of a younger generation of violinists able to reconcile its tendency towards sensual overkill with a formal logic as intuitive as it is disciplined. To these musicians must now be added Janine Jansen, whose forthright and frequently impulsive manner easily held its own against a sizable orchestra; at the helm of which Gergiev proved unusually attentive an accompanist. Parallel to this went a secure grasp of structure – the work’s four sections geared towards an overarching evolution in which salient motifs and themes remain recognizable almost in spite of themselves. The brief cadenza (by first exponent Paweł Kochanski) was vividly rendered, before being swept aside by an ecstatic orchestral climax then a coda in which the music all but dissolves. A performance, moreover, that was well-nigh flawless in the stratospheric harmonics that suffuse the later stages with a tangible radiance.
Having doubtless made new friends for this work, Jansen offered an appropriate encore in the guise of the scherzo from Prokofiev’s Sonata in C for Two Violins (Opus 56), in which she also renewed her incisive partnership with LSO leader Roman Simovic. Hopefully this is a work that she/they will get the opportunity to play complete.
What this first half did not leave one in the mood for was Brahms – or at least the First Symphony (1876), though insofar as Szymanowski found his means of liberation by breaking out of Austro-German strictures, Brahms did so precisely by embracing it head-on in what became the defining work of his output. Not that this was a revelatory or even innovative performance: Gergiev rather breezed through the first movement’s introduction, while the main Allegro only really found focus in a forcefully cumulative development (ironic, then, that he opted for the exposition repeat), though the fatalistic coda was eloquently rendered. An overly staid tempo made for an Andante which felt mawkish in its sentiment, despite some exquisite playing, while the third movement found an ideal balance between its scherzo and intermezzo facets that was undermined by the slightly indulgent close. The finale began rather matter-of-factly, Gergiev selling the speculative introduction short and with the horns’ chorale theme sounding not a little blousy, but handled the bulk with a degree of flexibility that offset the schematic formal process Brahms was to avoid in his later symphonies. The transition into the coda was finely judged, and while the ensuing peroration brought little in the way of exhilaration, it nonetheless set the seal on a performance whose emphatic cohesion was its main virtue – though, by the same token, its chief failing.