One was a composer rooted in the formal disciplines of the German tradition, the other a restless aesthete, forever in pursuit of the exotic in music and literature. The lives of Johannes Brahms and Karol Szymanowski overlapped by 15 years, but there is little otherwise to connect them – except the neat coincidence that they both wrote four symphonies.
How do they sound together? To open its 2012/13 season the London Symphony Orchestra has set out on a Brahms and Szymanowski series, comprising five programmes in all. The majority were heard first at the Edinburgh International Festival in August and will be going on to Paris and Luxembourg, with unadventurous New York joining in just for the Brahms elements, so this is one of the orchestra’s major offerings this season.
The Szymanowski is what matters here. The first two programmes over the weekend did not get beyond his early period, but by the Symphony No.2, dating from 1909/10, the young composer had certainly learnt how to whip up an orchestral storm. At times it is as though he had crept into Richard Strauss’s study and copied as much as he could of the unfinished score of Der Rosenkavalier while the ink was still wet. The most distinctive feature of the symphony is this luxuriant, late romantic use of the orchestra. Valery Gergiev, the LSO’s principal conductor, is the mastermind behind the series and his command of scintillating textures, learnt in the fantasy operas and ballets of his native Russian composers, was put to good use.
His Brahms was less successful. Unsurprisingly, Gergiev remains the romantic here too, sinking the music into a deep cushion of dark, brooding strings. Each Szymanowski symphony is paired with the Brahms symphony of the same number, so Sunday’s concert had Brahms’s Symphony No.2, but neither that nor his “Tragic” Overture came across with much inner life. Even when the speeds were near to normal, they felt slow, until Gergiev whipped up the pace at the end. These were sluggardly performances, which needed a stronger classical grip on where the music was going. The first two programmes of the series will be repeated in October and Szymanowski’s Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, his most renowned, follow in December.