MUSIC / Poles apart Slow but sure: Nicholas Williams on the BBC SO's Polska concert

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The Independent Culture
In a curious kind of programme, Szymanowski's Symphony No 4, a colourful pageant of Tatra folk song with concertante piano, partnered Gorecki's Symphony No 3 at the BBC Symphony Orchestra's South Bank concert under Alexander Lazarev last Thursday. The context was Radio 3's Polska festival, which aims, among other things, to place Gorecki in broad perspective. Not much common ground with his predecessor appeared here, however, save a mutual respect for national material.

Szymanowski's Fourth had the same kind of opulence, and the same problems, as his contemporary Arnold Bax's Winter Legends, where a concertante piano also fights heroically in the cause of atmosphere. Szymanowski's advantage was the biting edge of his interest in ethnic culture, and a sense of when to abandon chromatic wash for bold tonal outlines. In the slow movement, limpid tunes for solo violin and flute, accompanied by rippling piano (played by Janina Fialkowska), showed the utmost clarity of thought in both form and texture. By comparison, the first movement marked time as it searched for focus. The finale, an apotheosis of the dance, escaped from the Andante via a striking link of drum taps. Outmatched by the orchestra, Fialkowska made a strong impression whenever she could be heard.

There was almost more sense of a concerto about the Gorecki - at least, in the taut build-up to the soloist's entry. Heard live, the separate vibrato of eight double-basses made for a unique opening sound, quite different from any recording. When it came, Lorna Anderson's singing, though briefly drowned by trombones, was equally tremulant, with a tense, throaty vibration that disturbed the purity of mourning with welcome shadows of anxiety.

There was blessedness, or grace, in the second movement, where Lazarev took firm direction, having earlier failed to secure clean, balanced attack in the intense curtain chords that are the work's punctuation marks.

Firmness of purpose was sustained into the concluding song - those famous, swaying chords apparently inspired by a Chopin mazurka. Endlessly tranquil, yet flowing to its end, the music closed in riotous acclaim. The applause was as repetitious as the music; yet like the affecting turns from minor to major, the hypnotic broken chords and the soaring protest against the world's evil, it held a sincerity of its own.

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