• Szymanowski (Chandos, 2013)

CHAN 5115

Muzyka polska, volume five

Chandos CHSA 5115 (2013)
Louis Lortie, BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Edward Gardner

• Concert Overture (1905)
• Symphony no.4 (Symphonie Concertante, 1932)
• Symphony no.2 (1910)



For much of his life, and for several decades after his death, the music of the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) remained unknown to most concert-goers outside Poland.  The revival began in the mid-1970s, when his opera Król Roger (King Roger) was performed at Sadler’s Wells in London.  Western independent record companies began to reissue archive Polish performances on LP and non-Polish performers increasingly featured his music in the concert hall and in the studio.  With the arrival of CD technology, Szymanowski’s music at last made real headway outside Poland in the 1990s.  This new series by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Edward Gardner brings a welcome opportunity to re-engage with a composer whose ‘outsider’ status still seems to haunt him.

Szymanowski was an almost exact contemporary of Bartók, Stravinsky, and Webern, all of whom in one way or another established their reputations early.  Szymanowski, on the other hand, was less overtly radical and his career was hindered at key moments by Poland’s absence from the world stage.  Poland had been under the occupying powers of Russia, Prussia, and Austria since the end of the eighteenth century (it did not regain independence until 1918), and there had been little to celebrate culturally for much of the second half of the nineteenth century.  It is a measure of the country’s musical deprivation that the first full-time symphony orchestra, the Warsaw Philharmonic, was not established until 1901, when Szymanowski was nineteen.

Concert Overture

Five years later, on 6 February 1906, having formed an association with fellow composers called ‘Young Poland in Music’, Szymanowski made his professional Warsaw debut with the performance of three pieces, one of which was the orchestral Concert Overture (1905).  Szymanowski rescored it in 1912-13, making it leaner and more eloquent, and it is in this version that it was published.

It is immediately clear that the young Szymanowski looked for inspiration towards Richard Strauss, whose symphonic poem Don Juan (1888) was his obvious model.  The score of the original Concert Overture was inscribed with part of the poem Witeź Włast (Knight Witeź), by his friend Tadeusz Miciński:

I will not play you sad songs, O Shades! but will give you a triumph proud and fierce… I will take you to the land of the polar dawn… and I will stain the sacrificial stones with blood and reforge you, people – into demigods…

Although Szymanowski subsequently withdrew the associated text, the vivid Übermensch imagery of the poem is in keeping with the music’s exuberant side.

Szymanowski indicates his initial intentions with markings such as ecstatico, passionato, and aguzzo, stridente, counterbalanced by the dolce amoroso of the second subject (clarinet and cellos).  Before the condensed recapitulation, the development swings between introspection and excitability, recalling the music of his compatriot Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909) and, at times, the Byronic world of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony.

Symphony no. 2

A second German composer cast his spell after the premiere of the Concert Overture.  Szymanowski looked to Max Reger (whose densely chromatic and academic style has long since fallen from favour) in order to develop his contrapuntal skills.  Among the works from this period is his Second Symphony (1909-10, re-orchestrated 1927-36). The influence of Reger may be felt not only in its musical language but also in its use of variation form in the second movement which, additionally, incorporates two eighteenth-century dance forms and culminates in a fugal Finale. There are traces, as well, of a symphonic slow movement and scherzo in the first three variations.

Szymanowski opens boldly with solo violin, grazioso, its theme taken up by the full orchestra in a rich, chromatic vein that again links him to Karłowicz.  The clarinet introduces a Straussian chamber-music texture, the violas following with the second subject.  Despite such moments of intimacy, the urge to move towards expressive climaxes is irresistible.  After a little phrase on trumpets and trombones, the development proceeds through a series of episodes before merging seamlessly with a condensed recapitulation.  The phrase for trumpet and trombone reappears to usher in a coda that balances the heightened lyricism of the recapitulation with a quiet cadence.

The theme of the second movement, announced on the strings alone, is one of the most beautiful passages in all Szymanowski.  It is also the harmonious heart of the symphony.  The first two variations weave expressive arabesques from the theme, while the more substantial third variation is a self-contained scherzando with trio.  Its 3/8 wit and deportment are very Straussian, at moments seeming to inhabit the world of Der Rosenkavalier (also composed in 1909–10).  A gavotte continues the dancing idiom, while the ensuing minuet has both antique moments and a yearning towards a lyrical mode.  The sixth variation is really an extended flourish for the fugal Finale.

Szymanowski’s desire to integrate the Second Symphony thematically has already become evident in this second movement.  In the concluding part of it, Finale, existing themes are put through their paces in a contrapuntal process that in its dissonance and fervour has hints of the grotesque.  At times, it even approaches the expressive world of Alban Berg, to add to the occasional affinities which the symphony has with early pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, such as Pelleas und Melisande.  For Szymanowski, who was unknowingly on the threshold of greater independence from Austro-German influences, it signalled a mastery of large-scale form that, in his next orchestral work, the Third Symphony (1914-16), would lead him into even more imaginative territory.

Symphony no. 4 ‘Symphonie concertante’

There is a gap of over twenty years between the Second Symphony and the Fourth (1932).  Between 1911 and the early 1920s, in what became his ‘middle period’, Szymanowski had embraced new sources of inspiration, including Greek and Arabic culture as well as the music of French composers.  It was in this changed creative context, and during The Great War, that the Third Symphony was conceived and completed.  After Poland became independent again, Szymanowski saw it as part of his patriotic duty to do what he could to establish a genuinely Polish music, but not one that was slavishly derived from its folk music.  His ‘Polish period’ of the 1920s and 1930s thus became a synthesis of elements from all three of his compositional periods.

None of Szymanowski’s symphonies follows the classic pattern.  The Fourth in reality is a piano concerto in three movements.  The ‘concertante’ aspect refers to the wish of Szymanowski to write a companionable work that he could perform himself.  He was a good pianist, but not by nature a soloist.  The Fourth Symphony makes an interesting comparison with the understated Third Piano Concerto (1945) by Béla Bartók, because they both demonstrate a simplification of musical idiom and also because they begin in strikingly similar ways.

The first movement opens with a repeated F major chord over which the soloist elaborates a beguiling theme in double octaves.  Its origins in the distinctive folk idioms of the Tatra Mountains, where Szymanowski had a home, soon become apparent in the polyphonic textures incorporating horns and wind instruments.  The lyrical high violin lines and the intense climaxes from his earlier music are still present, although now he uses a more modestly sized orchestra.  There is a new earthiness and robustness, a new edge to his treatment of the musical world that he had found on his doorstep.

The opening of the Andante molto sostenuto could hardly provide a greater contrast.  The soloist provides background figuration for a flute melody, later taken up by solo violin.  The alternating notes of a minor third (initially C-A on the timpani) underpin the drive to the full-blooded central climax, where what had seemed so innocent on the flute at the start becomes impassioned in a way that would not have been out of place in the Straussian works of his first period.  The flute returns, this time with the opening theme of the first movement.  A few piano flourishes tumble down to land at the start of the Finale.

Szymanowski called this third movement ‘almost orgiastic in places’.  It is his most thrilling evocation of the dance – he invariably had to repeat it in concert and it has served as a model for many subsequent Polish composers.  It is cast as an oberek, a fast cousin of the mazurka.  The timpani return to their minor third, now A-C, propelling the music to its first climax.  Soloist and orchestra whirl and stamp, before a solo violin leads to the calmer central section, closer in tempo to the slower mazurka.  But the undercurrent of energy cannot be contained.  Extreme and almost grotesque elements are thrown in for good measure (high violins sounding ecstatic but far from lyrical) and the movement hurtles headlong to its destination.

© 2013 Adrian Thomas


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