Why should anyone want to perform the music of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)? You would think that this concert, the first in a Szymanowski series that Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra will take round the western world in coming months, would produce a satisfactory answer. The Polish composer has bypassed most of the great musical minds of the past 80 years. There is no anniversary to celebrate. Maybe the only reason for performing his oeuvre is that it’s there. The established repertoire has reached saturation point and, in the search for something new, the music industry has alighted on something that can be dressed up as forgotten treasure. The state-subsidised Adam Mickiewicz Institute is only too happy to fund performances – and a free Szymanowski iPad app – as part of its campaign to develop Poland’s international cultural profile. So why not?
Four years ago Gergiev brought King Roger, Szymanowski’s only opera, to Edinburgh, so this symphonic retrospective must have seemed a natural development. The two works in the LSO’s opening salvo were the First Symphony and First Violin Concerto. The symphony amounts to 20 minutes of harmonically on-the-edge orchestration – textured like mud and neurotic as hell. It’s a monster – Szymanowski’s own description. He failed to complete it and withdrew the two-movement torso after the 1909 premiere. Even the LSO’s best efforts failed to make sense of it.
The concerto, composed 10 years later, has finer textures but the fundamental problem remains: Szymanowski’s music is a soufflé of quasi-rhapsodic sound that would fall flat on its own emptiness were it not for his tireless note-spinning. There are next to no musical challenges, so the soloist, Nicola Benedetti, confined herself to the necessary – she produced technically refined threads of violin tone. Maybe the lesson of this retrospective is that Szymanowski is best served in bite-size pieces. That way the listener can be tempted by the exotic veneer, but never tastes enough to recognise the music’s true awfulness.
It was a relief to spend the concert’s second half listening to the Brahms First Symphony in Gergiev’s old-school reading – a generous pulse, a large, well-blended sound, a compelling sense of musical purpose.