• Szymanowski, vol.3 (Chandos, 2014)

CHSA 5143

Muzyka polska, volume 8

Szymanowski (vol.3)
Chandos CHSA 5143 (2014)
Ben Johnson, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Edward Gardner

• Symphony no.3 ‘The Song of the Night’ (1914-16)
• Love Songs of Hafiz, op.26 (1911/14)
• Symphony no.1 (1906-07)


The most anticipated – and sometimes the most dreaded – moments in a composer’s life are first performances. Musical history is peppered with instances of premieres that were incomplete, inadequate, or poorly received.  Each of the three pieces on this third CD in Chandos’ series devoted to orchestral works by Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) was marked by a first performance that, for one reason or another, did not live up to expectations.  In the case of the First Symphony (1906-07), it confirmed the composer’s own reservations about the work, while in the case of Love Songs of Hafiz (1911/1914), and especially the Third Symphony (1914-16), which went on to become one of Szymanowski’s most celebrated works, the first outings were, to say the least, unconventional.

Symphony no.1, op.15

The first orchestral work by Szymanowski, the Concert Overture (1903-05), had been successfully premiered in Warsaw in 1906 under the baton of his friend and champion Grzegorz Fitelberg, and it remains one of his most performed pieces, perhaps because of its Straussian bravura.  Three years later, on 26 March 1909, Fitelberg conducted the First Symphony, but even he could not raise much enthusiasm for it and Szymanowski withdrew the score.  Music historians have also been critical, Zofia Chylińska, the pre-eminent authority on Szymanowski, describing it as a ‘complicated and insincere composition’.  Sustained interest in performing the symphony did not surface until it was published a hundred years after the premiere, and it is now possible to hear it with new ears.

It is clear that Szymanowski struggled with the symphony.  He planned it as a three-movement work – Allegro patetico-Adagio-Allegretto grazioso – but the central movement was never written.  In the summer of 1906, while at work on the symphony, he wrote in Polish to a friend that it was (and here he turned to English) ‘the greatest humbug in the world!’.  This was probably a pre-emptive criticism, based on his realisation that he was pursuing a post-romantic path in which he did not fully believe.  The First Symphony is densely textured, showing, like the Second Symphony (to be premiered in 1911), the influence of Max Reger.  Its harmonic language is highly chromatic, drawing on recent post-Wagnerian trends, and its orchestration is intense.  Yet criticisms do not acknowledge the emotional expressivity that is already one of Szymanowski’s hallmarks – one that here may be compared with Arnold Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903).  And that is not to count the many chamber-like passages that illuminate the symphony.

From early on, Szymanowski regarded the first movement as ‘some sort of contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral monster’.  Its character is certainly dark-hued, and it progresses lyrically rather than dynamically, but it is far from the ‘monster’ that Szymanowski anticipated. In fact, it is marked by a yearning tenderness.  Its weakness, if indeed it is such, is its episodic nature and the lack of the obvious contrasts on which symphonic allegros were conventionally built.

When he wrote of the symphony in 1906 that ‘I don’t like it’, he qualified this by adding, ‘or rather, I like only the last movement, very light-hearted (lekkomyślna)’.  Despite this, the ‘frivolities’ (błahostki) and grazioso character of the Finale are hard to discern.  Its tone is even more Gothic than the climaxes of the first movement.  It proceeds from one earnest paragraph to the next, turbulent yet static despite its constant desire to push forward.  There is more than a touch of the Russian composer Scriabin in this music, and the portents of things to come – Szymanowski’s writing for the woodwind and the use of high solo violin – reinforce the impression that the First Symphony was, as Szymanowski suspected, a transitional work.

Love Songs of Hafiz, op.26

The premiere of Love Songs of Hafiz (Des Hafis Liebeslieder), op.26 took place on 12 September 1922, not in the concert hall but as the accompaniment to a ballet in the Grand Theatre, Warsaw.  The ballerina Halina Szmolcówna danced on stage while Adelina Czapska sang and Emil Młynarski conducted Szymanowski’s new song cycle.  The work was not completely new, however: the first three songs came from an earlier cycle of six songs, op.24 for voice and piano (1911), to which Szymanowski confusingly had given the same title.  Op.24 was premiered in 1912 by his sister, Stanisława, accompanied by their friend, Artur Rubinstein.  The orchestral set of eight songs, five of them new, did not receive its concert premiere until 1925, in Paris.

Although it belongs to a genre that includes concert staples such as Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été, Mahler’s several song cycles, and Ravel’s Shéhérazade, Love Songs of Hafiz has never properly established itself in the repertoire.  Its allure stems partly from its texts and partly from the music’s developing Arabian idioms, a result of visits which Szymanowski had paid to North Africa in the years immediately before the Great War.  Mediterranean, North African, and Persian cultures fed his perpetual search for the exotic in art and in life.  Combined with his new-found admiration for Debussy and early Stravinsky, they produced an amalgam in his second-period works, composed during his wartime isolation at home in Tymoszówka, south-east of Kiev, which was extremely potent.

The texts of Love Songs of Hafiz are paraphrases by the German poet Hans Bethge (1876-1946), who followed a line of distinguished poets from Goethe and Rückert onwards who were entranced by the work of the Persian Shams al-Din Muhammad, better known as Hafiz (or Hafez) of Shiraz (1325/26-1389/90).  In turn, Szymanowski was not the first, nor the last, composer to set this renowned Sufi poet’s ghazals in translation.  The mystical visions of Hafiz merge earthly pleasures – love (often unrequited), loss, and death – with God, as revealed in the figure of the Beloved.  His invocations are highly personal, as in his references to his own grave.

The first three songs of op. 26, ‘borrowed’ from Op. 24, still show Germanic influence, although in their orchestral guise they reveal stylistic tendencies which would come fully to fruition in Szymanowski’s music during the Great War.  The most prescient of these three is ‘Tanz’ (Dance), the light-footed rhythms of which resurface in the Third Symphony and elsewhere.  The delicacy of Szymanowski’s new soundworld becomes especially apparent in the fourth song, ‘Die Perlen meiner Seele’ (The Pearls of My Soul).  The filigree combination of harp, triangle, piano, celesta, and glockenspiel is deliberately unearthly, and the subsequent addition of solo flute, violin, and clarinet adds to the languid atmosphere.

This is not to imply that the new songs cannot be full-blooded.  The playful exuberance of the sixth song (its Arabic atmosphere embodied in the soloist’s opening melodic idea) and the almost rowdy tone of the drinking song that follows show a Szymanowski full of ecstatic energy.  By contrast, the final song, ‘Das Grab des Hafis’ (The Tomb of Hafiz), is intimate and delicate.  Its melodic, harmonic, and textural character matches the heady language of Hafiz’s verse, which swoons over the singing of the nightingales, the perfume of the flowers, and the intoxicating lure of wine.

Symphony no.3, op.27 ‘The Song of the Night’

The first performances of Szymanowski’s Third Symphony for solo tenor (or soprano), chorus, and orchestra were, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory.  The Russian conductor Aleksander Siloti had scheduled the premiere for 19 September 1916 during his concert series in Petrograd (now St Petersburg), but this plan came to nothing.  War and revolution continued to hamper the symphony’s progress into the concert hall in both Russia and Poland.  The first performance did not take place for another five years, far away in London, where Albert Coates conducted it on 24 November 1921.  The likely connection here is that Coates had been a pupil and friend of Siloti’s.

It seems scandalous today that the London premiere went ahead without any voices and was therefore wordless: the solo vocal part was assigned to a cello and the choral parts were played by the organ.  An appalled Fitelberg was at the concert and wrote to Szymanowski, who was in the United States: ‘Cynicism resulting in obscenity […] all naturally to keep costs down.’.  It was over two years before the symphony reached Warsaw, on 11 April 1924, this time with Fitelberg conducting and the solo part sung by the tenor Adam Dobosz.  The organ once more stood in for the choir.  Even so, the performance was enough to daze the eleven-year-old Witold Lutosławski, who was not yet aware of the major role he would play in Polish music after Szymanowski’s death.

The text is crucial for the Third Symphony and provides its subtitle, The Song of the Night.  It is by Hafiz’s famous predecessor, the Sufi poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (1207-1273), and it comes from his second Divan, ghazal No. 296. This time there were two stages in the translation.  A German version by Bethge was then translated into Polish by Tadeusz Miciński (1873-1918), the poet whose work Szymanowski had already set to music and whose poem ‘May Night’ would influence the First Violin Concerto (1916), the composition that immediately followed the Third Symphony.

The figure of the Beloved is again central, although here the poet calls him ‘dear friend’ (druhu).  In Rumi’s hands, the fusion of ‘friend’ and God is given an exalted though still sensuous tone by being located under the night sky, with its constellations of stars.  While Szymanowski received his initial inspiration from his experience of a summer night in Tymoszówka in 1914, the musical language blends Scriabin and Debussy with the music he had heard in Tunisia just a few months earlier.

From the outset, the music glows.  Its sonorous whole-tone harmony, topped by a characteristic soaring violin line, conjures up a world of love and wonder.  Man, God, and the universe are one, even at times of suffering.  The solo tenor’s opening line, ‘O, nie śpij, druhu, nocy tej’ (O, sleep not, dear friend, this night), resonates as a refrain through the symphony.  A shimmering orchestral texture – an echo of the fourth of the Love Songs of Hafiz – introduces a substantial choral paragraph, in which the poet casts his friend as Jupiter in the starry firmament, soaring like an eagle.  Szymanowski’s music for this choral exaltation reaches a shattering climax that captures the magnitude of Rumi’s vision.  As the almost orgiastic excitement recedes, the orchestra anticipates the dance character of the symphony’s central section.

The timpani herald the arrival of the dance, but before it can establish itself the choir returns in sumptuous mode, as if recalling the ecstasy of the first section.  At this point, the orchestra launches into the dance, scherzando.  Yet, Szymanowski’s dances are rarely sustained.  As here, they are intercut, fractured, as if the music is trying to grasp at the intangible.  To borrow an image from Miciński’s poem ‘May Night’, it is as if the air is full of fireflies.  After the choir returns once more, the orchestra brings the dance to its peak before the music subsides in peaceful exhaustion.

In the final section the solo tenor takes centre stage.  His first words – ‘Jak cicho’ (How quiet) – give way to his wonderment at being alone with God.  Rumi’s next couplet – ‘Jaki szum!…’ (What a roar!…) – is evoked by orchestral-choral explosions.  As the poet becomes more contemplative and star- gazes, Szymanowski, too, adopts a more delicate tone.  His compositional instincts, however, lead him to create a final sustained climax, using a line heard earlier in Rumi’s poem.  This sets up the brief coda, the rooted open fifths of which, C-G, hark back to the floating whole-tone harmonies on C at the very beginning.  It is Szymanowski’s way of realising Rumi’s final reflection that silence speaks volumes.

© 2014 Adrian Thomas


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