WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1 & 3; Love Songs of Hafiz
PERFORMER: Ben Johnson (tenor); BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Edward Gardner
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5143 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Like the outstanding two previous volumes in Edward Gardner’s Szymanowski series with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, this features an atmospheric, black-and-white cover image of the Tatra mountains. But the works spotlighted here date from before the Polish composer’s intensive engagement with the spirit of his country’s southern highlands, and mostly breathe the exoticism that inspired his middle period. The Third Symphony (Song of the Night), one of Szymanowski’s most famous works, includes settings for tenor soloist and chorus of poetry by Rumi. The BBC Symphony Chorus sings with languid exaltation, yet it is the orchestral detail that impresses most here, right from the still, mystery-laden opening. The violin solos sound sweetly unsettling, and in the middle movement the dance episodes break out and retreat naturally.
Love Songs of Hafiz – settings of the Sufi poet who succeeded Rumi – also inspire colourful playing, but they highlight a drawback of this disc. Though ardent and sometimes producing heft unexpected from an English tenor, Ben Johnson does not command the tonal sweetness called for here (or in the Symphony). With colour draining at the top of his voice, he is hardly a natural in the hedonism department. Even though recordings of Szymanowski symphonies have proliferated recently, this recording stands out when it comes to the ugly duckling First: the composer himself may have been unconvinced by it, yet Gardner conducts with such conviction that it is impossible not to find beauty in its potentially dense Reger-meets-Scriabin soundworld.