Five months ago the London Symphony Orchestra began a journey – crossing oceans and continents – devoted almost exclusively to concerts of Brahms and Szymanowski under its principal conductor, Valery Gergiev. Someone, somewhere, doubtless cited a rationale for this, but the pairing of their first symphonies at Edinburgh in August offered no illumination: the two composers’ music mixed like oil and water. Would the journey eventually bring enlightenment?
It ended this week with a concert pairing their third symphonies, and still we are none the wiser. Far from being a marriage of aesthetic opposites, this was a marriage of commercial convenience – a conductor in need of a novel programme theme, an orchestra in search of a CD-and-tour project, a management scrambling for bankable ideas.
The LSO’s public has been taken on a ride to nowhere. As this latest concert reaffirmed, Gergiev views Brahms from the outside. He does not get in the way; neither does he have a personal touch, or summon any of the intensity he brings to music with which he identifies temperamentally. If his Brahms/Szymanowski has revealed anything, it is that the Polish composer had, at best, a tangential relationship to classical form as exemplified by Brahms. So what? The same could be said of any number of late 19th-/early 20th-century composers.
A more instructive pairing for Szymanowski might have been Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov or Stravinsky or Bartók or Janácek, all of whom either saw music in similarly colouristic terms or had common roots across the Tatra mountains. But such a pairing – even with the talismanic Gergiev at its head – would have been deemed insufficiently “mainstream”.
Maybe Gergiev sees Szymanowski as a cousin of Scriabin – the same clotted textures, the same neurotic harmonies, the same sense of late Romanticism run riot. The LSO’s big sound saw the Third Symphony despatched confidently enough, without dispelling the impression that Szymanowski’s orchestra is constantly at war with itself, with about six activity centres on the go at any one moment. The London Symphony Chorus played its part in the stampede, and Toby Spence, the tenor soloist, had the disheartening task of trying to make himself heard above the noise.