Valery Gergiev’s series with the London Symphony Orchestra of the symphonies by Brahms and Szymanowski began its second stage here with a programme devoted to their ‘Thirds’ – outwardly the most disjunctive coupling in this cycle, with the former achieving a new formal and expressive economy and the latter seemingly abandoning any pretence to orthodox symphonic design. Maybe, though, there is a common link in that both of these works eschew any ‘received’ precedent in favour of an avowedly personal and even confessional approach to long-range formal evolution that neither composer was to attempt again to the same extent.
Putting Brahms’s Third Symphony (1883) in the first half is rarely, if ever, a good move and not least because it reinforces any feeling of provisionality to the reading. While Gergiev’s take on the opening Allegro was not without assertiveness or resolve, it lacked the ‘con brio’ to carry the music through in a continual span – without which, the music eased rather than steered its way forward; the exposition repeat yielding little cumulative intensification, and the development losing impetus before building a little tardily to the tonal fulcrum at the start of the reprise, though the coda’s ebbing away of emotion was unerringly judged. Gergiev would presumably disagree with programme-note writer Andrew Huth that the Andante is not a ‘‘true slow movement’’: there was a slightly cloying expression here that, while it did not detract from searching inwardness, made the more demonstrative passages seem overwrought in manner. Interestingly, the following movement – the most poised of Brahms’s orchestral intermezzos – entirely avoided this pitfall, its flowing wistfulness fairly catching the breath when the main theme returns on horn after the limpid trio. Neither energetic nor portentous in pacing, the finale has the requisite vehemence –and a stunning major to minor modulation at the start of the reprise – though the coda, while affecting, lacked the airborne eloquence that is a hallmark of any great performance.
From here to Szymanowski’s Third Symphony (1916) is potentially a vast leap, at least in terms of conception. The setting (in Polish) of verses by the 13th-century Persian mystic Jalāl’ad-Dīn Rumi, this work might be thought of as a symphony in name only – though the composer is mindful to ensure its often enveloping harmonic richness and ecstatic extremes are allied to a highly disciplined formal trajectory in which the frequently euphoric outer sections, akin to an exposition and reprise, frame a more animated sequence where the choral writing is limited to wordless interjections within an orchestral ‘development’ of keen ingenuity. Gergiev expertly managed the music’s surges of emotion without reining-in its dynamic power (though the Barbican Hall’s lack of front-to-back perspective offers little help in this regard), while the contribution of the London Symphony Chorus lacked little in commitment. Toby Spence was commanding rather than imploring in the exacting tenor part, while audibly coming into his own during the final section with singing of considerable ardour. If not the most overwhelming account in recent memory, the present performance made the most of the work’s symphonic credentials – taking its cue from the last two of Scriabin’s ‘symphonies’ (notably Prometheus, though the Szymanowski is much the finer piece) – such as, paradoxically perhaps, enabled this unique entity to exert an ever more captivating spell.
Coming between these works (after the interval), Brahms’s Haydn Variations (1873) was hardly a bridge from one to the other, even less did it prepare for the Szymanowski. Yet Gergiev delivered a fresh and unmannered account of a piece that can easily become staid or unfocussed when the conductor is intent on characterising each of the eight variations at the expense of its context within the overall design. Mindful that the commentaries unfold as a sequence of contrasting pairs, he ensured that the finale – with its deft recourse to passacaglia form and teasing allusions to almost all the variations – capped the whole without ever resorting to needless rhetoric or bathos. The result was as engaging as it was pleasurable.
- Concert played again on Tuesday 18 November at 7.30 p.m.