The London Symphony Orchestra’s cycle of the symphonies by Szymanowski and Brahms might have been among the more obliquely conceived such projects (though for the most part successful artistically), but there could be no reservation as to the logic in coupling the most significant choral works by these two composers: a ‘Polish’ Stabat Mater to balance a ‘German’ Requiem which, between them, convey so much about their respective approaches to the questions of belief and, beyond that, life itself. A testing challenge, furthermore, for the London Symphony Chorus that, already sounding newly motivated under the direction of Simon Halsey, was met head-on with singing of notable lustre and conviction.
Although it stands as the significant work leading into his final creative phase, Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater (1926) emerged relatively quickly in the wake of a commission from the redoubtable Princesse de Polignac – which most likely explains just why its amalgam of post-Impressionist and Polish folk elements sounds so effortless in its cohesion. For all that, its elusiveness of manner has not decreased since the piece moved in from the periphery of the modern choral repertoire and the present performance undoubtedly had its measure. Sally Matthews (her voice having recently taken on a mezzo-like richness) and Ekaterina Gubanova combined eloquently in their several duet passages, while Kostas Smoriginas (replacing an indisposed Gerald Finely at very short notice) exuded passion without undue histrionics. For his part Valery Gergiev conducted with evident thoughtfulness, and though he might have minimised the pauses between its six movements – overall continuity thereby being lessened – the radiant transcendence of the fourth and final sections was never in doubt.
Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (1868) is considerably more familiar, yet it remains a difficult work to ‘get right’ and this reading was not consistently more than the sum of its best parts. That said, those latter were by no means infrequent – not least Gergiev’s measured though never sluggish pacing of the opening section or his simmering implacability in the ‘sarabande’ portions of its successor. Conversely the whimsical interlude near the latter’s centre felt insensitively rushed through, though not the closing outburst of affirmation, while the wistful elegance of the fourth movement was hardly less matter-of-fact. An undoubted plus was the solo singing – Christopher Maltman (also standing in for Finley) giving of his considerable best in the initial recitatives of the third and sixth movements, his sheer ardency finding meaningful contrast with the poise and pathos Matthews brought to the fifth movement in what is one of Brahms’s most affecting inspirations. Gergiev rather muffed the continuation of the third movement with his overly hasty rendering of its fugal peroration, but redressed the balance with his driving incisiveness in the rhetorical central span of the sixth then rightly avoided any decrease of tempo going into its closing fugue. The final movement was successful in that allusions to earlier material were unobtrusively brought out as this most all-encompassing among Brahms’s works comes limpidly full circle.
Apart from occasional insecurity of intonation, the LSC gave a fine account of choral writing that wears its steeping in tradition with surpassing deftness, while the LSO made the most of the often dark-hued yet translucent orchestration. If not an incandescent performance, this was still an absorbing one in its rounding-off of an unlikely yet worthwhile series.