• LSO Szymanowski: Brochure Essay
25 years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the death of the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), his music was rarely heard in concert outside Poland and recordings were just as scarce. Today, this contemporary of Stravinsky and Bartók is recognised for his distinctive contribution to the array of musical styles and aesthetics of the early decades of the 20th century. Even so, it is not often that audiences have the chance in one season to hear all four of his symphonies, the two intriguing violin concertos and the unforgettable Stabat Mater.
Szymanowski’s First Symphony (1907) displays a youthful musical vision besotted with high-German Romanticism and the mysticism of the Russian Scriabin. His second (1910) occupies similar territory, but its voice is newly refined, its passion channelled into soaring violin lines and chamber textures as much as into full-blooded Straussian rhetoric.
The juxtaposition with the German Brahms will be fascinating to witness, not least because Szymanowski wrote in 1912: “I’d rather a single bar of Brahms than the whole of modern French music, which is too superficial”. He never lost his love for Brahms’s music, but he soon ate his words about the French, as the Third Symphony and First Violin Concerto (1916) testify. His awareness of Debussy, combined with a new intoxication with Arabic cultures, gave rise in these ground-breaking works to a unique musical exoticism.
By the 1920s and 30s, Szymanowski was looking for another world to explore, and he found it right on his own doorstep. The Stabat Mater (1926), Fourth Symphony ‘Concertante’ (effectively a piano concerto) and the Second Violin Concerto are infused with Polish folklore, especially that of the Tatra Mountains where he had a home. This music is sparer, verging at times on the neoclassical, but it remains characteristically impassioned.
Szymanowski once described Brahms as a “noble, solitary figure”. The same might be said about Szymanowski, whose music occupies a special place in European culture, one which acknowledges its Austro-German heritage and at the same time challenges it with the irresistible attractions of other musical traditions.
© 2012 Adrian Thomas