SZYMANOWSKI: Symphony No. 3, Op. 27 "The Song of the Night." Symphony No. 4 for piano and orchestra, Op. 60
Rafal Bartminski, tenor; Jan Krzystof Broja, piano; National Choir of Poland; Warsaw Philharmonic Orch/Antoni Wit, cond.

Music of Willcocks, Clarke, Greene, Widor, Mendelssohn, Karg-Elert, Bonnet, Handel, Cocker, Parry, Brewer, Barber, Eben and Stravinsky
Simon Johnson playing the Grand Organ of St. Paul's Cathedral, London

'SPECTRALL STRANDS' - Works for viola with and without electronics
Garth Knox, viola/viola d'amore/Brian O'Reilly (visuals)

Here we have two splendid—perhaps definitive—performances of two of Karol Szymanowski's greatest works, the Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 4, neither of which actually are "symphonies." No. 3, called by the composer "The Song of the Night," is a mystic 25-minute work for chorus, orchestra and a solo violin with a brief part for a tenor who sings poems by Rumi about the soul's nocturnal colloquy with God. The mystery of the universe and the supernatural is conveyed with shimmering orchestral textures. Szymanowski's orchestration is sumptuous and every bit of it is captured in this superb live performance from Warsaw. Symphony No. 4 is usually called Symphonia Concertante because of the elaborate part for solo piano. Arthur Rubinstein seemed fascinated by it, but it never became part of his regular repertory—although he did record it in 1952 with Wallenstein and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Young pianist Jan Krzystof Broja, after making a rather startling appearance on stage wearing a blue silk jacket, gives a stunning performance of this challenging music. Camera work is exemplary, with some fine shots from above the keyboard. Audio is rich and satisfying. A commendable issue in every way.

This two-disk (DVD and CD) recital by Simon Johnson playing the Grand Organ of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, disappoints. Johnson currently is organist and assistant director of music at St. Paul's, and there's no question that he is a fine organist. The organ is a magnificent instrument, and its varied sounds have been well captured by the engineers. There are profuse program notes but no where does it say who is responsible for visuals, most of which I found unimaginative, distracting and sometimes inappropriate. Watching Johnson perform is is the opposite of the personality and showmanship of Cameron Carpenter. Johnson is at his best in his improvisation, " illi succlamabant, dicentes.." included as a bonus on the DVD (but not mentioned in program notes). Other "bonuses"are a detailed dissection of Tuba Tune, and information about the Cathedral and its organ. The setup menu is odd .When one clicks "Set Up" on the menu, we go to "Surround Setup," that then identifies all five channels (plus bass) with audio signals. There is no listed choice between stereo and multichannel sound. A regular stereo CD of the printed program also is included. This set is of interest only to extreme organ aficionados.

Spectral Strands is a collaboration between Garth Knox who is heard performing on viola and viola d'amore (sometimes with electronics sounds produced by Götz Dipper, Michael Edwards and Joachim Gofsmann) to abstract visuals created by video artist Brian O'Reilly. Program notes say this is, "a unique conjunction of sound, space and image," and, indeed, it is unique. Beauty of sound has nothing to do with any of this as the viola is stretched to its sonic limit, not helped one bit by the electronic sounds. All of this "music" was written by recognized contemporary composers, and doubtless O'Reilly also is highly regarded in his field. But what we experience here is almost an hour of ugly sounds with scratchy visuals that make no attempt whatever to coordinate with audio. This is very far removed from Fantasia! Not that it matters, but production values are poor. In addition to some text typos and grammatical errors, the main menu doesn't work on three DVD players. It is impossible to choose between stereo and surround sound, so I experienced this in stereo. I cannot imagine surround sound would have have made this experience more palatable. Skip this one, for sure.

R.E.B. (March 2011).