Szymanowski: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
Karol Szymanowski’s first two symphonies are neither widely known nor greatly loved, and there is little likelihood of this new release doing much to change that. A pity, for they are fascinating and often rewarding pieces dating from the composer’s first compositional period, which found him under the spell of Richard Strauss and Max Reger (and occasionally sounding like early Schoenberg). Even the composer himself disowned his First Symphony as some sort of a ‘monstrum kontrapunktyczno-harmoniczno-orchestrowe’, and, with PR like that, it is little wonder some interpreters get it wrong. Valery Gergiev, recorded here in part of his Szymanowski cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra last autumn, takes the ‘monster’ bit to heart and conducts in an unrelenting and churning fashion, rather than giving this Ugly Duckling some help.
Of course, this being the virtuosic LSO, there are good things to hear, not least the hectic grotesqueries of the fugal finale to the less problematic but hardly conventional Second Symphony. Its kaleidoscopic score gives many of the instrumentalists a chance to shine, and the theme of the variations in the second movement is beautifully played; but, composed on the cusp of Szymanowski’s West- and East-looking periods, its thick textures generally need more sensitive handling than Gergiev delivers in juggernaut mode. Such seasoned, natural interpreters as Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic (Naxos) outclass the newcomers, who are put at a further disadvantage by the ungenerous timing of this disc.