The London Symphony Orchestra’s series focussing on the symphonies of Brahms and Szymanowski continued here with the respective composers’ ‘seconds’. Whereas Szymanowski gave up on his first essay in the genre as an irretrievable ‘bad lot’, he kept faith in his Second Symphony (1910) – revising it extensively during the 1920s and 1930s, in collaboration with the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg (quite what these revisions are seem to vary between performances) – and rightly so, as the work has a formal solidity and thematic resourcefulness which accord it a high place among symphonies of the period. When it was last played in the UK is uncertain, though it is certainly deserving of greater exposure in the future.
Valery Gergiev had the measure of its first movement, a sonata Allegro whose leisurely unfolding (hence the ‘moderato’ and ‘grazioso’ markings) is ill-served by too short-winded an approach. Eloquent string-playing informed the exposition with its caressing themes and its luxuriant but never turgid harmonies, building to a powerful climax in the development, though the curtailed reprise could have been given a little more breathing space on the way to an ethereal coda. Although what follows can be heard (and was designated here) as slow movement and fugal finale, it is essentially a continuous entity in which the haunting initial theme is followed by two progressively more intricate slow variations then an alternately capricious and sensuous scherzo, an amiable gavotte and a suave minuet: a defiant transition then leads into a bracing fugue whose sweeping culmination yields to the soulful recollection of earlier ideas, before the work’s opening theme and the fugue subject are united in a heady apotheosis.
Securing playing that did full justice to the music’s potent synthesis of Regerian counterpoint and Scriabinesque harmony, Gergiev handled the finale’s initial half with unassuming rightness. The fugal remainder was just a little too hectic in its follow-through, but the incisiveness of the LSO’s response ensured an unswerving focus right through to a nonchalant final pay-off which evidently caught the audience unawares.
The impetus of this piece was the more evident coming after an account of Brahms’s Tragic Overture (1881) that, right from the unequivocal initial bars, had a portentous quality which acted rather as a ‘drag factor’ over the more energetic passages and gave the speculative central section an air of aloofness – for all that the transition back into the eloquent second theme was effortlessly effected. Its composer’s retort to the symphonic poem that he (rightly) foresaw would outface the symphony in the favours of a younger generation, the work abounds in some of Brahms’s most imaginative orchestral touches – many of which were persuasively brought out here despite a lingering sense of overt studiousness.
After the interval, Brahms’s Second Symphony (1877) and a reading that got appreciably closer to the heart of the matter than Gergiev’s frequently overbearing account of its predecessor. In particular, the first movement emerged with a persuasive combining of ruminative and ominous aspects that opens-out the composer’s symphonic thinking appreciably – the exposition repeat subtly intensifying a thematic interplay that brought no mean intensity to a strenuous development and, after a restive reprise, leading via an agitated transition (consummate horn-playing here) to the affecting coda. The ensuing Adagio exhibited a similar marriage of long-breathed eloquence and more equivocal asides such as ensured the movement’s eventual ambivalence – Gergiev obtaining a response which was arguably overwrought in expressive terms, while still being much preferable to those readings that content themselves with setting out the notes and leaving deeper interpretative matters out of consideration. The third movement lacked the last degree in delicacy, though the variation-like alternation of its refrain and episodes was piquantly characterised, then the finale capped the whole with an energy that did not preclude uncertainty (such as that proto-Mahlerian descent into the reprise) on the way to a coda whose finely gauged acceleration ensured a close of bracing affirmation – setting the seal on a notably persuasive performance.