LSO Szymanowski Symphonies Nos 1 & 2

The music of Szymanowski (1882-1937) has had some pretty strong champions over the last decade.

The Polish composer’s piano music, violin concertos and choral works have all featured much more in concert programming of late. Partly thanks to the kind assistance of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, LSO Live continues the good work with new recordings of the composer’s symphonies, the first and second now released under Valery Gergiev’s direction. Symphony No1 (1906-7) is an early essay which has only retained its first and last movements. How interesting, though, to hear the young Pole embracing the soundworld of German late Romantic music with its lushness and angst, shifting tonalities and angular motifs. Whatever compositional ambitions Szymanowski had, his first symphony rather brilliantly cross-references what the young Arnold Schoenberg was doing at that time. Bass lines are set free, high solo vioin passages emerge from dense contrapuntal textures and sinister muted trumpets appear from nowhere. Incomplete and therefore hard to programme, the work deserves to be heard more often.

The Symphony No 2 takes up almost where the first leaves off – listening to the disc in one go gives an impression of a continuous journey. Composed a couple of years later than No 1 but subsequently revised, it is structurally curious, with a theme and variations blurring the conventional four-movement form, and a vigorous fugal finale to conclude. Viewed alongside its predecessor, the second symphony’s ultimate destination is harder to identify - the influence of Richard Strauss gradually gives way to something less rigorous and more hedonistic, not unlike the world of Scriabin.

Much is often made of Szymanowski’s stylistic fluctuations, and his ability to inhabit musical styles already created by others. His own originality as a composer was probably to lie in the fluency with which he moved between all those styles which appealed to him.

Szymanowski’s orchestral music and Gergiev combine powerfully. The composer’s large orchestrations demand the most accomplished balancing act from the conductor and orchestra, and a clear sense of the work’s focal points. In less talented hands Szymanowski’s orchestral canvasses can degenerate into something muddy and a bit wearing – but not here. If these early works are somewhat experimental, they are given every chance to shine in these lustrous performances by the LSO.


James Mallinson, LSO Live Producer

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