Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra kicked off their 2012-13 season with what promises to be a fascinating insight into the music of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. Placing the spotlight on this neglected figure is timely — it is the 75th anniversary of his death this year. But pairing him with Johannes Brahms is an odd decision. The two did write four symphonies each, and Szymanowski once said something complementary about his long-deceased predecessor, but apart from that, they didn’t have very much in common.
Still, with the Pole the main focus of attention, it was a rare treat to hear his Symphony No. 1 (1907), which the composer himself referred to as a ‘monster’. Indeed, he only ever bothered to complete the two outer movements of a projected three. Both sections owe huge debts to Max Reger, Richard Strauss and even Scriabin, and they lack distinctive themes that might otherwise have given the work a firmer direction and the composer’s own signatory stamp. Nevertheless, the orchestra and audience basked in luxuriant harmonies and shimmering orchestral textures, prefiguring the accomplishments of the Vioin Concerto No.1, penned less than a decade later.
This violin concerto is classic Symanowski — ethereal, rapturous and headily exotic. But it is more than a mere picture postcard from the composer’s earlier travels around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Musical themes are clearly delineated and developed, and the orchestra (which includes piano, celesta and a prominent tambourine) is used colourfully and sparingly when required. Soloist Janine Jansen did full justice to the score, teasing out the poignant melodies and forming a close-knit partnership with conductor and orchestra. The ensuing applause was well deserved, although the encore she shared with LSO leader Roman Simovic (the first movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins) looked suspiciously pre-planned.
And so to Brahms. Gergiev eschewed an experimental approach to the Symphony No. 1 and gave us instead a fairly traditional reading in terms of tempo and balance. But this relative conservatism (which would, in any case, have pleased Brahms’s first 1876 audience) was not without warmth and expressiveness. The majesty of the opening movement gave way to a particularly delicate Andante, slowed down to reveal a Tchaikovskian sensitivity. After a vigorous third movement, the grandiose finale ground down to a slightly plodding pace in the middle section before picking up again in a resounding coda.
The concert will be repeated at the Barbican Hall on Thursday 11 October.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk