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Brahms & Szymanowski

BRAHMS Symphony No 3; Variations on a Theme by Haydn SZYMANOWSKI Symphony No 3 ('Song of the Night') Toby Spence tenor London Symphony Orchestra/Chorus/Valery Gergiev

Szymanowski Symphony No 4; Second Violin Concerto - Denis Matsuev & Leonidas Kavako; Brahms Fourth Symphony: London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev

The Barbican, December 2012

We attended two concerts of this series, which failed to attract full houses to the LSO at The Barbican, and our responses were perhaps atypical of regular orchestral concertgoers.

Brahms 3 felt heavy, sometimes rather turgid, not a special account of it (perhaps because our press seats were too close?). Further back for the second half, the St Antoni Variations gave the greatest pleasure of the evening.

The huge Szymanowski choral symphony no 3, packing the platform area, proved grandiose in the extreme, and somehow felt inappropriately costly to have been put on in these times when bank failures and government austerities dominate the news, with real hardships in the run-up to Christmas. We were neither overwhelmed nor convinced of its merits.

And we were, unexpectedly, further disenchanted by the two concertos, uneasy companions, which comprised the first half of the last concert of the series. Szymanowski seems to have been an indulgent orchestrator; Denis Matsuev's powerful piano, prepared for maximum volume, failed to match the three trumpets and three tromblones which were given their head too often. And things were little better for Leonidas Kavakos in the 2nd violin concerto; neither of those concertos seemed destined for more than an occasion concert airing, despite the cachet of Gergiev's championship.

The most pleasing part of this festival had proved for us to be a pre-concert Szymanowski event with singers from the Guildhall School, including a couple of the rarely heard and lovely Children's Songs which I had recorded on LP, with my small son Simon Woolf singing in perfect Polish, a recording which easily holds its own against two by Polish national sopranos...

But Gergiev's Brahms 4 with the LSO was astonishing, and swept away the cobwebs in minutes.

Carefully baanced from the beginning it held what might have been tired attentions to the last bar, the culmination of the Passacaglia finale, which follwed th fleet Scherzo without a break. One of the great Brahms symphony experiences of a lifetime.*

Peter Grahame Woolf

* This last concert was being filmed with multiple cameras and on-stage interviewing for "International TV live", and was telecast live by the French programme Mezzo. A dvd will follow in due course.

For a musiclogical appraisal of these concerts, go to Richard Whitehouse on Classical Source.

And to epitomise the subjectivity of concert reviewing, see The Independent: By taking his leave of us with Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, Gergiev unwisely revealed a blind spot, because this music is simply not his metier. I have never seen a conductor more visibly out of sympathy with his material, nor heard a more drably mechanical account of this supremely Romantic work: no drama, no poetry, gratingly crude dynamics – it could have been a first rehearsal.