Szymanowski: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4

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COMPOSERS: Szymanowski
LABELS: LSO Live
ALBUM TITLE: Szymanowski: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4
WORKS: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4
PERFORMER: Sally Matthews (soprano), Ekaterina Gubanova (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spenze (tenor), Kostas Smorigans (bass-baritone), Denis Matsuev (piano); London Symphony Chorus; LSO/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: LSO0739

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Szymanowski’s work has always been well received in England, where in the last 20 years there has been an upsurge of recordings of his music. With Simon Rattle’s series (EMI) currently being followed by Edward Gardner’s (Chandos), both their outstanding contributions to the Szymanowski discography render Valery Gergiev’s efforts on the LSO Live label redundant.

Illustrating the problems of Gergiev’s latest disc is its centrepiece, the haunting Stabat Mater, a work that has never really been absent here since Elgar was instrumental in introducing it at the 1932 Three Choirs Festival. Even if many in the LSO Chorus must have sung this before, Gergiev sounds like a newcomer. Where mystical stillness is required, he is lethargic, and with the exception of the glowing mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, his soloists are disappointing – and too distantly recorded.

By contrast, the Symphony No. 4 is closely recorded, giving prominence to the solo piano part where it should be more delicately integrated. Although Szymanowski called this late work from his folkloric period ‘almost a concerto’, he certainly didn’t have in mind the sort of Prokofievian brutality that Gergiev and his pianist Denis Matsuev supply. The music’s illuminating intensity is lost amid crude gear changes.

Allowing Russians to march all over their music probably wasn’t the first intention of Poland’s Mickiewicz Institute, which has funded this LSO project. At least they get better value for their money in a hothouse performance of Symphony No. 3, where the tenor Toby Spence, the London Symphony Chorus and lush-sounding LSO all combine to capture the orientalist tone.

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John Allison