A Variable Start to the LSO’s New Season

September 23, 2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Szymanowski, Brahms. Janine Jansen (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 22.9.2012 (CG)

Szymanowski :Symphony no 1 in F minor Op 15 (1906-7)
Violin Concerto no 1 Op 35 (1916)
Brahms: Symphony no 1 in C minor Op 68 (1876)

For its 2012/13 season, the London Symphony Orchestra, under its principal conductor Valery Gergiev, is embarking on programmes of Karol Szymanowski’s symphonies and other works, coupled with music by Brahms. This will be of tremendous interest to followers of Szymanowski’s much-neglected music; the composer has never been widely acknowledged as a major figure and remains chiefly known for his two violin concertos, the first of which we were to hear this evening.

The symphonies are rarer creatures, and it is plainly rather difficult to approach the First having already learned that the composer himself disliked it and never finished it. The twenty-four year-old composer was desperately trying to develop his own technique, especially in terms of counterpoint, and had become particularly interested in the music of Max Reger. The result was not exactly successful, and Szymanowski withdrew it after only one performance in 1909. Only two movements remain; each is fiercely chromatic harmonically, heavily orchestrated, often bombastic, intense or even plain ugly. My friend described the experience of listening to it as “trapped in a washing machine” – there’s certainly an awful lot of churning! True there are some passages reminiscent of, say, Scriabin, and the post-Wagnerian harmony points towards later, more successful works but by and large this is a piece well worth forgetting except as a curiosity. I’m not sure if the rugged, forceful performance of it by Gergiev and the LSO did it too many favours, but they can hardly be blamed for the dense orchestration, plodding rhythms, forgettable material, and confused argument. Szymanowski’s description of it as a “contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral monster” was thus not wide of the mark!

What a relief, then, to hear Janine Jensen tackle the First Violin Concerto. Composed ten years later, by then Szymanowski had developed a far surer technique, and the concerto has many episodes of great beauty with plenty of opportunities for the soloist to weave and soar above the orchestra. I could not fault Janine Jansen’s wonderfully sensitive interpretation of the solo part, which isn’t necessarily easy to get right. It is predominantly lyrical and frequently passionate, and of critical importance are genuinely flexible tempi; fortunately the collaboration of Jensen and Gergiev seemed well-nigh perfect. Only very occasionally did the richly colourful and rather full orchestration threaten to drown the soloist, and the LSO’s contributions were always supremely musical and enjoyable. A performance of this calibre almost disguises the fact that a good deal of this exotic, mystical music is rather too improvisatory in character, with its frequent reminders of major figures such as Scriabin, Debussy, or early Stravinsky. The long and lovely cadenza towards the end of the work, which was composed by Szymanowski’s friend Pawel Kochanski, was beautifully done.

For part two of the concert the territory was altogether different with the First Symphony of Brahms. I had wondered how Gergiev might tackle this; in the event it was a mostly rather strident reading, not short of volume in the over-warm Barbican environment. At the outset, the violins were virtually drowned by some enthusiastic timpani playing, and while you could say the strength of the reading of the first movement overall was a full-bodied red-bloodedness, I did miss some subtlety in the quieter sections.

There was some fine woodwind, horn and solo violin playing in the second movement, and some strongly intense romantic work from the strings, but the earlier worries about things being somehow too forceful remained. The third movement was too fast for my taste, becoming positively hectic in the trio section, but the final movement, played without a break, had just the right amounts of grandeur and expression, with the closing section becoming terrifically stirring.

A slightly patchy start to the season, then, and it will be fascinating to see how things develop later on.

Christopher Gunning

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