Valery Gergiev’s cycle of the symphonies by Brahms and Szymanowski concluded with their respective Fourths: works that may be less polarized than their predecessors, but which nonetheless leave these composers at vastly different junctures in terms of symphonic thinking.
Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony (1932) is subtitled ‘Sinfonia concertante’, which fairly describes the nature of its relationship between piano and orchestra – one in which virtuosity is channelled towards a thematic evolution that is by no means obliquely ‘symphonic’; unfolding as it does over three movements that consist of a truncated and cumulative sonata Moderato, a ternary Andante whose elegiac flute theme reaches a passionate climax, and a final Allegro whose coursing energy takes in inward recollections before a conclusion orgiastic even by the later standards of this composer. Denis Matsuev duly combined the parallel aspects of bravura and integration with no mean conviction, and though he was intermittently overawed by the orchestral response, this had more to do with Gergiev’s giving the LSO its head at points where it should ideally have been reined in. Not that this seriously undermined a work that, conceptually poised between the respective third piano concertos of Prokofiev and Bartók, is among Szymanowski’s most life-enhancing statements.
While one would not always wish to hear this piece followed by the Second Violin Concerto (1933), such juxtaposition was viable in the context of this series as well as pointing up the stylistic continuity between the composer’s last major works (a piano concertino on which he had been engaged during his final years seems not to have survived). Once again the musical argument unfolds continuously, abetted by the overall format which falls into two movements (unhelpfully ‘broken down’ into four in the LSO’s programme note) separated by a strategically placed cadenza. Both of them alternate ideas of relative languor and energy, with the latter movement underlining their common thematic source prior to the decisive close. Playing without a score, and just a little tentative towards the start, Leonidas Kavakos brought an irresistible drive to the closing stages – after having rendered the cadenza with real awareness of its subtle folk-music inflections – and Gergiev was mindful of the need for restraint across Szymanowski’s typically luxuriant orchestration.
Although his Fourth Symphony (1885) was not Brahms’s last major work, it is hard to think how he might have continued along the symphonic path – even if he evidently twice attempted to do so. Certainly this piece takes the abstract formal principals refined over its three predecessors to a logical extreme, allied to an austerity and even gauntness of orchestral sound that even today can prove disconcerting. In a performance with the Vienna Philharmonic at this venue some years ago, Gergiev suffused the piece with an almost Tchaikovskian ardour – making his relative restraint on this occasion the more surprising. Thus the first movement unfolded with a stealthy purposefulness which was deftly undermined by the subtle vagaries of its development, and only in the coda did the music’s accumulated intensity spill over into the impassioned. The Andante was eloquently rendered as a thoughtful processional, touching on that inward pathos which the composer had by now made his own as well as the fatalism which, following an agile and bracingly propelled scherzo, took on a new defiance in the finale. Brahms’s casting of this movement as a (not necessarily strict) passacaglia has been seen as a ‘no way back’ in terms of symphonic closure – but even if it were the case, the remorseless energy with which Gergiev steered the 32 variations on a modified Bach chorale to their unrelenting apotheosis brought an exhilaration all its own.
An impressive end to an absorbing series that, if it did not suggest deeper connections between the symphonies of two dissimilar composers, at least brought those by Szymanowski (the first two in particular) to a wider audience and also reinforced why those by Brahms remain a paradigm of abstract thinking rarely equalled and arguably never surpassed.
- Concert played again on Wednesday 19 November at 7.30 p.m.