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Ionarts-at-Large: Ax in Szymanowski

Schumann’s Manfred (“dramatic poem with music in three parts”) exists, even if only the overture is ever performed. Recordings were rare until last year but have been amended by accounts from Andrey Boreyko (Arthaus DVD) and Bruno Weil (Preiser SACD). Perhaps just a few performances of the whole thing would suffice to yearn again for the narrative-romantic conciseness of just the overture. But until then, fine readings like that of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado (standing in for an injured John Eliot Gardiner) wake a lust for more. It is hard to say whether Gardiner’s Manfred Overture would have sounded less brawny, thundering, dynamically nuanced, cohesive than Heras-Casado’s… Gardiner’s HIP-credentials notwithstanding, the last I heard him conduct the BRSO (Shostakovich, Bartók, Dvořák in 2008), he coaxed as silky romantic a sound out of them as I’ve ever heard. If anything was missing from the young Spanish conductor with hair to put Dudamel’s to shame, it was any element of surprise.

available at AmazonK.Szymanowski, Symphonies No 1 & 4, Concert Overture,
J.K.Broja / Wit / Warsaw PO
Much of the same was true for a highly enjoyable yet forgettable “Scottish” Symphony from Mendelssohn that was the anticlimactic conclusion to the premature highlight: Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony, the de-facto piano concerto “Symphonie concertante” op.60. A continuation of the BRSO’s incandescent Szymanowski-evening with Frank Peter Zimmermann (review here) and both the violin concertos, it was Emanuel Ax’s turn to tackle the soloists’ part of the grand work that has some parallels to Busoni’s Piano Concerto. Its big boned and harsh, brash romantic sound is presented in a corset of classical proportions: the brass-plated first movement, the finely spun exoticism of the second movement (a mini-violin concerto within), and an increasingly long assault of the finale. It is a synthesis of the ecstatic and the dreamy, with many parts for soloists within the orchestra to shine that Ax negotiated with aplomb and the BRSO, less transparent as the work went on, provided with plenty pizzazz.