The Salle Pleyel’s programmatic dichotomy between “memory” and “creation” continually seeks to promote the more established names in classical music, whilst also shedding light on lesser-known repertoires from all musical epochs. This coincided nicely with the central project of the LSO’s latest concert series, not based on a particularly obvious stylistic or national link, but rather one focused on a specific ideal, seeking to contrast “heritage” with “modernity”: exploring the symphonies of Johannes Brahms alongside discovering the symphonic works of Karol Szymanowski, on the 130th anniversary of his birth (and coincidentally the 75th anniversary of his death). In the hope of rediscovering Szymanowski, a composer unfortunately somewhat cloaked by the shadow of music history, Gergiev has coupled respectively each of his four symphonies alongside one of Brahms’ four symphonies.

Valery Gergiev © Decca / Marco Borggreve
Valery Gergiev
© Decca / Marco Borggreve

This is not, however, a new concert series. Premièred at the Edinburgh Festival, Gergiev has brought these concerts to London and now Paris, a first for French audiences who are rarely able to experience (I use the word experience and not simply listen) the entirety of Szymanowski’s large-scale symphonic works. With Gergiev’s latest series following work on Szymanowski by Pierre Boulez and Péter Eötvös earlier in the year, the composer has recently dominated a principal position in French musical awareness.

A surface comparison of Brahms and Szymanowski would certainly perplex those in search of a link. Aside from an equal number of symphonies from both composers, there are seemingly few ties between Brahms and Szymanowski. However, despite both composers expressing themselves in two completely contrasting aesthetics, both these aesthetics were, as discussed in the programme, somewhat shaped by the influence of one looming German shadow: Beethoven.

Whilst it is true that an evening of symphonies cannot fail to raise the ghost of symphonic past, Szymanowski’s aesthetic may better be traced from Brahms whose aesthetic, in turn, was undoubtedly shaped by Beethoven. However, instead of attempting to lead two different horses to the same water, it would be better simply to examine each composer’s approach to the symphonic genre without attempts at an aesthetic liaison and justification. Szymanowski’s Symphony no. 3 undoubtedly displays above all influences of Wagnerian and Straussian opulence, the refined and mysterious harmonies of Scriabin, and the tonal and textural subtleties of Debussy. By comparison, Brahms’ Symphony no. 3, full of confident flamboyance amidst a more sombre atmosphere, evokes a strong Schubertian resonance. Yet both composers professed great difficulties in launching themselves into the symphonic genre, Brahms grappling with the impressive Beethoven, Szymanowski grappling with the sheer feat of symphonic composition (at the age of 24). It is more interesting to observe the unique and opposed approaches to the same musical format, rather than delve into music history in search of tenuous threads.

Programmatic issues aside, these two symphonies were tackled with great energy and precision by Gergiev, with clear control over the orchestra. The two themes of the first movement of Brahms’ symphony, bustling fervour followed by a more gracious theme from the wind section, were performed magnificently. The serenity of the Andante was balanced by the adventurous harmonies, leading into the melancholic Poco allegretto before the final dramatic Allegro, whose urgent rhythms were quite literally hammered by Gergiev’s conducting fists.

Despite clear harmonic tensions and relaxations, and an overall circularity in thematic material, Szymanowski’s symphony displays no identifiable symphonic form, presented rather as a one-movement “symphonic poem” (a title rejected by the composer, opting instead for “Symphony”), inspired by a 13th-century Persian poem and its exotic oriental images. Alongside the orchestra, the London Symphony Chorus provided a forceful vocal accompaniment under tenor soloist Toby Spence, his voice soaring with apparent ease over the orchestra. Composed in 1914–16, in the early years of the Great War, the work’s angst and unease, perfectly recreated by the orchestra, proves without a doubt that every Szymanowski symphony corresponds to a period of the composer’s life.

In between these two titans was placed Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. An odd choice for the opening of the second half, arguably dominated by the Szymanowski, and one I feel unfortunately provided little sense or comfort, hardly bridging the two works and acting instead as a stark and harsh contrast for what was to follow. Nonetheless, Gergiev managed to draw from the orchestra a wide gamut of moods for each variation, moving with ease between the playful and more frantic movements. The wind section in particular provided great harmonic colouring over a powering bass line.

From the command and power of the Brahms symphony, the wit and playfulness of the Variations to the striking and mysterious world of Szymanowski, it is clear to see how the LSO maintain their position as one of the world’s top orchestras. If there was ever a way to best discover Szymanowski, this was undoubtedly it.