Can it really be only 75 years since the death of Karol Szymanowski? So infused with exotic mysticism is the Polish composer’s music that it seems to speak of a world far further removed in time and place – a Dionysiac realm where the intellect gives way to the senses or the far-away Orient of the Arabian Nights.
There will be a fair amount of Szymanowski played in London this year, the various events being promoted under the general umbrella of the Polska Music programme of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. Pierre Boulez, a late (and unlikely) convert to Szymanowski’s music, will be conducting a pair of concerts at the Barbican, and a blazing start was made on Wednesday when Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with every player called in for the occasion, performed the Symphony No 3.
Opulent, heady, excessive, the symphony is Szymanowski at the peak of his powers. The work bears the title “The Song of the Night” and is a choral setting, with tenor solo, of a poem by the 13th-century Persian mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi. “Venus swims in golden rain through this night!” proclaims the text and Szymanowski responds with music of sensual ecstasy – no obvious melodies as such, but an atmosphere soaked in luxuriant beauty, overlaid by tinkling percussion and celesta.
Many later composers have sought to go down this route where orchestral texture takes precedence over musical content, but few have had Szymanowski’s ear or his discipline. It is surprising how much of the time the orchestra is sparingly used, and when he does pile on the full forces, with extra brass and organ, the effect here under Jurowski’s precise direction was suitably rapturous. Jeremy Ovenden was the lyrical soloist and the London Philharmonic Choir wrestled, not always successfully, with Szymanowski’s sensual harmonies.
Zemlinsky’s Psalm 23, composed a few years earlier, sounded very plain by comparison. Perhaps Brahms’s Violin Concerto would have done too, had it not been for the quick-witted, spontaneous playing of Joshua Bell. Brahms ideally requires a violin sound of more richness than Bell offers – Jurowski and the LPO did well to complement his lighter, precise style – but phrase after phrase was stamped with individuality, and much was memorable.