I don’t think Valery Gergiev has ever been out to claim that Brahms and Szymanowski were particularly similar composers. I certainly hope he hasn’t, at any rate, on the basis of his final LSO programme pairing the two of them. But that’s not to say they don’t make an intriguing match, and this meeting of the Pole’s Stabat Mater (1925–26) and the German’s Requiem (1865–68) was provocative and worthwhile.

Valery Gergiev conducting the LSO  ©  Alberto Venzago
Valery Gergiev conducting the LSO
© Alberto Venzago

The German Requiem’s apparent lack of concern for religious matters – its almost secular nature, you might say – is much discussed. Brahms hand-picked his texts – from scripture, yes, but with a radically unzealous focus on mourning and consolation, leaving out the judgement and the dogma found in most requiems. Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, by contrast, may date from 50 years later but is a more traditionally cast religious work, which sets the elegantly metred description of Mary at the crucifixion to music suggestive of redemption through grief and suffering. Both pieces begin in abstruse, delicately scored mystery and end in a warm, major glow, but it’s only in the Szymanowski that something seems to be overcome; the Brahms is more equivocal, a little less austere, more generous in its doling out of blessings. Blessed are they that mourn, says the first movement, and blessed are they that die, says the last. More conventionally, the text of the Stabat Mater begs for salvation, and Szymanowski somewhat obliges through a rather mystic, devout score.

The two pieces share a spurning of Latin, instead adopting the native languages of their composers; Szymanowski’s piece is surely as “Polish” as Brahms’ is “German”, and the idea of his composing a (Polish) “folk requiem” was apparently in his mind not long before he wrote the Stabat Mater. But both works’ closeness to their countries of origin ultimately just reinforces their differences: as their respective countries were, Szymanowski’s piece is faithful and God-fearing; Brahms’ is questioning, even cosmopolitan.

In terms of musical language, the pieces share equally little, despite an apparent effort from Gergiev to make Brahms’ big scoring shimmer. This made for an effective opening to the Requiem, with its strange, violinless textures, but perhaps because of the concern shown for such minutiae, the first movement as a whole lacked that Germanic sense of propulsion so crucial to making Brahms pack a punch. The second movement suffered from the same problem, which crucially meant that its dark refrain (“Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras”) wasn’t chilling. Baritone soloist Christopher Maltman (no mean stand-in for a throat-infected Gerald Finley) was the saviour of this performance, his bold, declamatory entrance in the third movement giving the whole piece an extra dramatic edge which carried all the way through to the end. Soprano Sally Matthews’ solo was delicate and attractive, and the London Symphony Chorus – strong throughout the piece – were sensitive accompanists here in particular.

In sum, though, this wasn’t the most gripping German Requiem, lacking thrust overall as it did in the first two movements. Perhaps more care had been put into shaping the Stabat Mater, which at any rate better suited Gergiev’s texture-centric approach and positively glowed here under his toothpick. Though the whole orchestra was on great form, most striking were the various wind principals, who delivered their several astringent, grief-struck solos with a beautiful purity of tone. Bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas (also covering for Finley) often struggled to be heard over some sizeable sounds from chorus and orchestra, but he proved his worth in a better-balanced final movement. Matthews and mezzo soloist Ekaterina Gubanova, often duetting, blended well and gave compelling readings of their relatively unshowy parts. The London Symphony Chorus, with impressive Polish, delivered some gorgeous sonorities, especially in the a cappella fourth movement and the fifth, in which they mutter darkly.

If Gergiev was trying to bring these two works together through his interpretations, I wasn’t convinced by the outcome this led to for the Brahms Requiem – a piece which, meaning no disrespect to Szymanowski, should not sound like second fiddle to any other choral work. And besides, they say that opposites attract: maybe letting the works simply be their very different selves would have set flight to a few more sparks.

Valery Gergiev: Brahms & SzyanowskiPaul Kilbey reviews the London Symphony Orchestra and Gergiev in choral works by Brahms and Szymanowski.4