For the 2010/11 season, the London Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, made a point of extensively exploring the works of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Shostakovich and Shchedrin. For the 2011/12 season, it was Tchaikovsky and Stravinksy. This year, Gergiev has opted for a flavour of both Western and Eastern European music, juxtaposing the symphonic giant Brahms with another four-symphonied companion, the often overlooked Szymanowski.
The second of the Barbican's concerts in the series was something of a Szymanowski sandwich, his Symphony no. 2 in B flat major pressed between Brahms' Tragic Overture and his Second Symphony.
The Tragic Overture, the second of his two never-quite-satisfyingly-titled overtures (other possible titles included "Dramatic Overture" and "Funereal Overture") was composed in 1880 and published the following year. His first overture, the Academic Festival Overture was written the previous year in response to gaining an honorary philosophy doctorate, and the second quickly followed compositionary suit. The aggressive stab of the first two chords cut through the silence in a startling opening to the programme, the lyric sweep of the melody extravagantly building layer upon layer. The beginning was full of passion and drive. At later points in the piece, the interpretation could have had slightly more direction – the lyric passages were beautifully handled in terms of tone, but needed slightly more propulsion to pour more light on the suppressed angst engrained in the writing. However, the more agitated sections were furiously gutsy and played with impressive bravado.
The high point of the programme was the other of the two bookends, the Brahms Symphony no. 2 in D major. Each time the theme returned in its various guises, Gergiev crafted the motif with characterful attention to detail; short fragments of theme that would normally be lost in the swathe of orchestral sound stood out with resonance and clarity, the mellifluous yawning of mellower incarnations of the theme handled with poise and dignity, cheekier staccato entries bouncing across the wall of sound like a pebble skimming on a lake. Despite four major-key movements, the underlying melancholy and depth to the piece was highlighted sensitively and intelligently, the second movement in particular swelling to passionate heights not normally witnessed in the often restrained writing of Brahms. The final movement also sparkled with charm, the grand yet contained excitement being allowed to catch the light and shine with brilliance.
In the middle of these items was the Szymanowski Symphony no. 2, a two-movement symphony, although the second movement is in itself split into two distinct parts: a "Theme and Variations" and a "Fuga". The rich geometric meandering of the opening solo was expressively nuanced by Roman Simovic (principal violin) and the hall was quickly awash with colour as the movement unfolded. At times, as with the Tragic Overture, the melodic passages could have benefited from a little more direction from the orchestra as a whole, but the overall exploration into the music was emotional and heartfelt. The second movement was equally strong in each half; the mood of each of the variations was captured with originality and charm, the juggling of the voices in the fugue done with masterly precision.
As standalone pieces, each of the programme's items were interpreted with a great sense of style and musical depth, but I remained unconvinced by the concept of a concert of just Brahms and Szymanowski side by side, and any deep and meaningful between the two composers seems to be tenuous at best. True, they both wrote four symphonies. Also true, they both enjoyed exploring classical forms and each respectively brought their own individual modern touch to the tried and tested. But for all the surface similarities, I can't help but feel that the repressed grandeur of Brahms and the indulgent expression of Szymanowski are – excuse the pun – poles apart. Szymanowski is unduly neglected in the concert hall today, with a rich late Romanticism beginning to approach the dissolution of tonality further expanded later in the century.
But, to me, Brahms and Szymanowski seem in essence to be two very different creatures; while the juxtaposition of the two is an interesting one-off experiment, I would be far more interested in future to put Brahms back where he belongs among the earlier Romantics and hear how Szymanowski holds up against Russian contemporaries or how he bridges the gap to expressionism in 20th-century music.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS