It was a subtle programming idea for the four LSO Festival concerts to offer in apposition symphonies by two composers from different periods and discrete musical traditions.
The third concert, with the interposition of a Brahms orchestral work between his shortest symphony and Szymanowski’s “Song of Night”– which the composer said should really be described as a symphonic poem but he didn’t like the term – was a particular delight for me as it included one of my favourite pieces.
“Variations on a Theme by Haydn” is familiar to many and somewhere buried in my record collection is my first LP – “Chorale St Anthony,” a piano version played by Michelangeli. This impeccable full orchestra performance, however, displayed nuances and shading of tone not possible by a piano, despite the fact that Brahms’ original version was written for two pianos.
The Brahms symphony, premiered some 10 years after the “Variations,” was an instant success. It shows him breaking free from the Beethoven symphonic tradition. It has no real slow movement but two moderately slow central pastoral movements with hints of folksong.
The subdued opening of the final movement turned into a tumult of furious sound which mellowed into a tranquil string finale, enthusiastically applauded by a full Usher Hall.
For me, it was a first hearing for Szymanowski’s “Song of Night”. The Polish composer’s works are not in the regular UK concert repertoire and this piece is rarely performed – not surprising considering the massive forces involved. An enlarged orchestra featuring a hefty percussion section almost overflowed the Usher Hall platform. The tenor soloist balanced precariously on the edge and the Organ Gallery was packed solid.
The work was inspired by the Polish translation of a poem by the 13th century writer Rumi. Its sensuous mystical soliloquy reflects on the relation between man and God and conjures up ecstasy in the Persian night. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus were phonetically perfect with the Polish text, though perhaps grateful that some of their contribution was not words but sounds.
Valery Gergiev, principal conductor of the LSO since 2007, obviously had complete rapport with the orchestra, easily controlling and encouraging them without domineering. One possible weak link in the performance was the tenor Steve Davislim. His accurate, pleasing vocal entries did not sit well with the volume of the Festival Chorus.
Event: Saturday, 18 August at 7.30 pm