Karol Szymanowski’s symphonic output is similar to that of his shorter-lived contemporary Alexander Scriabin, with a stubborn refusal to write anything in a conventional four-movement form, nor a work that could be described as being an example of intensively structured symphonic thinking. Yet Szymanowski’s works in this genre have been more popular of late, with two Symphony-cycles released in the last year. The first was the result of Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra’s implausible pairing with Brahms; the second is Chandos’s in-depth study of Szymanowski’s orchestral works that looks to also include his song-cycles.
The ordering on this release – Volume 8 of “Muzyka Polska” – is curious, the First Symphony (1909) placed at the end as if to acknowledge its awkward position within the composer’s output, but making sense in the context of this disc given that work’s resolute conclusion. It is a strange piece, striving for complexity and ecstasy with its added-note harmonies, while on occasion alighting on unexpectedly primitive chords and tonal areas. Edward Gardner brings plenty of passion from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, enough to ensure the fervency of Wagner and even Tchaikovsky is revealed as influences. Yet the lopsided nature of the structures renders it ultimately unsatisfactory, its sudden about-turn from F to B flat a procedure that Gardner handles well but which still feels clunky.
With ‘The Song of the Night’ (Symphony No.3, belatedly premiered, in London in 1921) we are on much firmer ground, and Gardner conducts a convincing account. The Chandos recording does well to achieve an ideal balance in the thrilling climactic points, where choral discipline is strong – the BBC Symphony Chorus nailing the high ‘C’ in the first movement, and there is an impressive heft to the opening of the finale in particular. The solo contributions from leader Stephen Bryant add sweetness to the sound in the first movement, the second becomes a colourful scherzo, and Ben Johnson blossoms nicely with the Chorus in the enchanted beginning to the third.
The Love Songs of Hafiz (first-performed in 1922) is a cycle of eight settings of German paraphrases by Hans Bethge after Hafiz, and places great demands of stamina and control on the singer. Ben Johnson exhibits a pure tone and faultless intonation, and his high singing in ‘Die Perlen meine Seele’ (The Pearls of My Soul) is especially memorable. Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra bring through nicely pointed details in the orchestration, the solo violin and clarinet in ‘Der Grab des Hafis’ (The Tomb of Hafiz) in particular, though there are moments when there could be more ecstasy, given the exotic texts and rich chromaticism of their realisation. Johnson should be commended, however, for the precision of his singing.
This is a very recommendable addition to Edward Gardner’s Szymanowski series – which will hopefully continue and embrace the Violin Concertos. This release, the third, includes texts and translations for the Songs and Symphony 3.