Szymanowski: Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 4 (Symphonie concertante)

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COMPOSERS: Szymanowski
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 4 (Symphonie concertante)
PERFORMER: Howard Shelley (piano); BBC Philharmonic/Vassily Sinaisky
The tendency of conductors in Szymanowski’s Second (especially in the massive Regerian fugue) is to go for the big line. The rival versions all to some degree tread this path, adding to a perception of the work as a wonderful overblown monument to twilight Romanticism.


The key is to get the seams right, and avoid overloading. Sinaisky (who emerges as the hero in this work alongside his excellent BBC Philharmonic players) never loses hold of the reins and offers an admirably consistent, restrained reading. The textures are ingeniously lightened, always to the benefit of fine detail; climaxes are held back, time and again, so the experience is like some long span of coitus interruptus rather than the no-holds-barred, flared nostril approach that’s common. Fine woodwind (paired flutes that could be straight out of Reger’s Mozart or Hiller Variations, for example) and admirable solo violin (shades of Heldenleben) contribute to the presiding air of lyricism.


All this before one gets to the more ‘approachable’ of the two works. Howard Shelley brings warmth and maturity to the piano solo line of the Fourth Symphony. Some orchestral detail emerges less crisply than in Mark Elder’s BBC Symphony Orchestra reading (on Carlton, albeit in a less friendly acoustic than Chandos’s); and one sorely misses the distinctive ‘mountain’ character which Tadeusz Zmudzínski, on Marco Polo, reminds us still underlies Szymanowski’s style. But a cheerful bonus to the superb No. 2. Roderic Dunnett