Monday, 20 August 2012

Summary - Edinburgh Gergiev LSO Brahms Szymanowski

Gergiev's Brahms and Szymanowski series at the Edinburgh Festival, ahead of the Barbican tour later this year, has majored in loudness and big climaxes, with a lack of dynamic variation or subtlety. Few of the works on the programme lend themselves well to this approach and this, combined with the surprising programming, has made the listening experience patchy. There have been rare moments when a less bombastic approach has crept in and some very enjoyable music has resulted. Several of these were in the final performance [link to review of this].

There have been some surprise hits too, in particular a good and illuminating account of Szymanowski's rarely performed Second Symphony, especially its theme-and-variation-style second movement. The concert including this is well worth going to, just for the opportunity to hear this particular work.

Hearing the initially surprising pairing with Brahms does find occasional points of illumination, such as the second symphony of Szymanowski's (a good account, see above) with the finale of the Brahms Fourth, and the so-called Haydn variations with both. One of the threads in parallel for the two composers which is brought into focus by hearing this unusual joint cycle is  that from an expansive middle period - for Szymanowksi perhaps his most individualistic and distinctive - there is a return to more traditional forms and influences.

Brahms's Fourth Symphony was found 'severe' by early listeners and collaborators such as Clara Schumann, and whilst I recognise the considerable achievement of its finale, I can appreciate this criticism and in some ways find his Second and Third symphonies easier and more enjoyable to listen to. There is something  more forbiding and austere  about the more academic and structured Fourth, where Brahms seeks to resolve the post-Beethoven differently by returning to Baroque influenced musical architecture but coloured and viewed through the lens of the Romantic era in which he lived and wrote. This however, was better served by Gergiev's possibly surprising approach to Brahms, which has tended – perhaps surprisingly - towards cool and technical, characterised by precision rather than feeling. It is almost as if he sought to overcompensate against the risk of bringing too much theatricality with him from the opera house, instead being at best rather controlled and at times almost impatient or even perfunctory.

Szymanowski, long inspired by travel and the exotic, in his late period looked more to his homeland and to overt influences of folk music, such as from the Tatra  Mountains where he made his home, which can be heard in the Fourth Symphony's third (last) movement. Unlike Brahms – one of whose greatest achievements  was the agnostic German Requiem – Szymanowski turned or returned to traditional religion, for example setting a very beautiful Stabat Mater, which is to be heard in London in 2013 and  a Litany to the Virgin Mary (contemporaneous with the fourth symphony and the second violin conerto heard here).

Alongside the return to the culture and religion of his homeland, he abandoned such rich orchestral colour and lush soundworld for a leaner, more ascetic aesthetic, brought out well in the moving performance of the Second Violin Concerto by Leonidas Kavakos. Both composers seemed to have returned to tradition from a high water mark of emotional expressiveness  and expansiveness, to look homewards rather than abroad and to the past rather than to the future in their late works, the last being a particualr disappointment to the emerging young composer Lutoslawski, who saw Szymanowksi as a leading force in Polish modernism and was disappointed by this conservatism.

The later works of both these composers being leaner and more pared down in their mood  meant though  that they were better suited to the style of playing here, hence the performances of these late works were more enjoyable. The softer, more mellow mid-period of both composers has suffered most, especially that of Szymanowski which calls for positive lushness, not merely for softness, delicacy or lyricism. The leaner more ascetic and more formal later works fared better. The good reception received on the opening night for the first violin concerto, which is of the Romantic middle period, was largely due to the excellent playing and local popularity of  soloist Nicola Benedettini.

One of the points to emerge from the programming in this cycle is that amongst Szymanowski's considerable output, works with a solo line  fare better for both audience and performers. A virtuostic pianist himself, and the close friend of a virtuoso violinist, he writes well for both of these instruments and for voice. The inclusion of one or more soloists seems to bring a welcome focus and make these works more readily coherent and hence more accessible. Most of the real successes of this series fell into this category.

In a recent interview, Gergiev – who is known for his command of the Russian repertoire and for his opera conducting - has expressed his desire to claim Szymanowski as a Russian composer and emphasise his Russian connections. This may go some way towards explaining why his interpretation of this composer's works emphasises theatricality.  (Interestingly, it is notable that arguably the most successful collaboration in overall terms of the entire cycle was with a fellow Russian soloist.) It is not, though, a position completely congruent with the stated aims of the promoters of the concert cycle, who wish to portray Symanowski as a European composer and to emphasise his links westwards rather than eastwards.

However, the listener may readily discern an influence or connection with several other composers when hearing Szymanowski, not only the somewhat tenuous one put forward here with Brahms. The Fourth Symphony might well suggest Ravel, but its Nietzschian inspirations are in common with Delius, in particular the Mass of Life, which I have already referred to, as well as that composer more generally, again a point I made here earlier. Russian inspirations and connections are not hard to make: not only Scriabin (like Szymanowski, an impressive pianist) – quite obviously – but also Stravinsky, and at times Rachmaninov. However, they are perhaps connections more on the fringes than firmly within the Russian mainstream.

What may emerge is that Szymanowski – who for much of his life viewed himself as a cosmopolitan and an explorer – was eclectic and influenced by many styles, experimenting musically and travelling widely. Perhaps Szymanowski  belongs not to Europe,  nor exclusively to Russia but both; and perhaps he is a universalist who is not tied to one cultural influence alone? This might well be how he would have liked to see himself and how he would have liked to be remembered.

There is an argument that rather than try to pigeon-hole his writing with one particular tradition or musical influence, it could more informatively be presented alongside a variety of composers and works with which it had relationships. It has been suggested elsewhere that Szymanowksi is best heard in small doses: perhaps a more sympathetic view would be that it is best heard alongside helpful programming of suitable repertoire.

It would almost seem that, as his 60th birthday approaches, rather than offer a valedictory tour of his best and best known repertoire, Gergiev – known for Russian repertoire and his association with the Kirov/ Marinsky  Opera - has set himself a personal challenge to conduct the music least suited to his style and temperament that he could find and came up with the camp, extravagant and indeed homoerotic Polish aristocrat Szymanowksi on the one hand, and and the measured but tender warmth of Brahms, backlit by the slow tide of the North  Sea, on the other. One might also wonder whether the objective was to explore different approaches, or to try to fit a one-size-for-all Russian-style performance to as many composers as possible? Is this the musical equivalent of the celebrity jungle challenge, or of driving tanks down the streets of Paris? The end result is rather like eating Turkish delight with steak, the steak being a bit tough and the Turkish delight having too much gelatine and not enough sugar!

So who benefits from this musical equivalent of the bush-tucker challenge? Probably the soloists - who all emerge well: Nicola Benedettini; Steve Davislim; Denis Matsuev and perhaps especially Leonidas Kavikos. Also, very much, Roman Simovic, leader of the LSO, who has had consistently good solos across several works.

Should London audiences go to this mishmash when it transfers to the Barbican? The final concert is well worth seeing, for the very dynamic chemistry at the front of stage in the second violin concerto alone, the good account of Szymanowksi four a further bonus. The second is also worth  going to, for the opportunity to hear  a live performance and a good account of the Szymanowksi two. If you enjoyed Eotvos' account of the Song of the Night, only go to this account of that same work if you want to be reminded how good that was. If you are – or might be – interested in hearing more of Szymanowksi, this performance cycle could give a very misleading impression and there are a number of more sympathetic interpretations  available on recordings, including a budget  set of the complete works issued by Naxos, which I have reviewed for MusicWebInternational, a bargain at under £20, good playing if patchy sound quality. It is regrettable that the admirable initiative to tour a major cycle of this composer's work so as to make it better known to audiences in western Europe presents  them with this mainly unsympathetic and idiosyncratic interpretation. If you want a good account of the Brahms symphonies, the LSO/ Haitink partnership  is not surpassed here, now available from the orchestra at a modest price, nor are any of the DG recordings.

Gergiev is conducting Tchaikovsky Cinderella on the final weekend of the Edinburgh Festival, and also at BBC Prom 52 on 22nd August

photo: Marco Borggreve

No comments: