Pairing up the four symphonies of Szymanowski and Brahms has provoked some discussion within the band and the press. Why put these two composers together? Does the performance of the two composers bring anything to the other, is there some illumination provided by hearing the works side by side? Is the only only reason that they both happened to write four symphonies? In the modern age it seems that no programme on the concert platform, or art exhibition or literary festival can exist without a theme; a chance for curators of these events to show the continuous line of human creative endeavour? Maybe. Sometimes almost certainly they do. One review of a recent concert we performed wondered what the link was between the two halves of the concert and then proceeded to find one, but is it always necessary? I don’t think so, as there are a great many works of art which stand alone and sufficient without the need to find an overarching narrative upon which we the audience or they, the curators can hang a new interpretation. But yet it seems more and more common as everybody fights for attention in a crowded marketplace. If you don’t believe me, just look for the new ENO adverts for Don Giovanni to see what I mean.
Having lived with the Brahms/Szymanowski concept for a few weeks now it seems to me that although the two composers are interesting placed alongside each other, what is more interesting is seeing their own personal development through their music. A Brahms cycle has been more out of favour in recent years than Mahler, Beethoven or the constant diet of Mozart, and certainly Szymanowski hasn’t had a complete cycle for a while. Here in Luxembourg, where for once I am not writing on the move but in a hotel room, the differences are highlighted as a game of two halves. The cycle is, thank goodness, split into two concerts now and the other two in December. This is done in chronological order so last night we played Brahms 1 and Szymanowski 1 and tonight 2 and 2. In December we play 3 and 3 and then…oh you know, you don’t need an arts management degree to work it out. I have been playing in the Brahms symphonies on this trip whilst Adam has played the Szymanowski and so I have had the opportunity to sit and listen to the orchestra. As first symphonies go you couldn’t ask for more different styles. Brahms famously took around 20 years to complete his and found the constant comparison with Beethoven a constant pressure. He said at the time
“You can’t imagine what it’s like to have that giant (Beethoven) marching behind one”
Brahms in fact didn’t publish the work until he had performed it several times and had made many adjustments until he was happy. To make sure the voice he wanted to be heard was the one that we hear today, he made sure to destroy early works. Szymanowski, on the other hand, writing under the influence of Reger, Wagner and Strauss, never completed the full symphony and described it as a monster, eventually withdrawing the two completed movements after its first performance. His comment: “I don’t like it.”
So it seems impossible really, and a little unfair to compare and contrast the workings of an older, more experienced Brahms and his polished masterpiece to that of the younger composer who didn’t finish and withdrew his composition. Or is it? As we move through the cycle, Brahms’ music develops certainly, but there is no huge stylistic shift. He doesn’t explore especially different genres like Bartók or Stravinsky did later. He had a successful formula and moved it gradually forward like a rock. I’ve always found the description of his first as Beethoven’s 10th a little ridiculous as the difference in style between Ludwig’s 1st and 9th are poles apart, whereas Brahms is a developed version of the same. Szymanowksi, as we go through the cycle however, is both recognisable from that first symphony and unrecognisable as he uses thematic material from the first movement of the second in the finale and incorporates Arabic music (3rd) and Polish folk song (4th).
The app Discover Szymanowski picks this idea apart and what is a surprise to me over the season is that I’m not sure whether I like it, just like the composer himself, but the discovery of the stylistic journey he made is fascinating.