• LSO Szymanowski: Symphony no.2

thumb-phpKarol Szymanowski: Symphony no.2
programme note written for
London, 23 September 2012; Paris, 6 and 7 October 2012; Luxembourg, 8 and 9 October 2012; Frankfurt, 10 October 2012



When Szymanowski completed his Second Symphony (1909-10, rev. 1927-36), he was coming to the end of what is generally acknowledged as his first compositional period.  This had been dominated by the Austro-German worlds of Richard Strauss, Max Reger and early Arnold Schoenberg, with more than a nod towards the Russian Aleksander Skryabin.  Szymanowski was not alone in Poland at that time in looking westwards for inspiration, not least because Poland as a nation state did not then exist and its musical culture was tepid.  His affinity with Skryabin was, however, unique to him, and it led to a suffused, otherworldly expressivity that gave his music, both in 1910 and subsequently, some of its characteristically ecstatic quality.  In the Second Symphony, however, it is the West which controls the East.

None of Szymanowski’s symphonies is cast in conventional four-movement form. This symphony opens with a movement that follows sonata principles, while the second movement is effectively in two parts.  It builds on a typical nineteenth-century procedure – Theme and Variations followed by a Fugue – although aspects of the traditional slow movement, Scherzo and Finale are also in evidence. The archaic appearance of a Gavotte and Minuet in the variations, as well as of the concluding fugue, is evidence of Szymanowski’s attachment at this stage of his career to Reger, a composer whose outlook and idiom have long since fallen from favour.

Szymanowski opens boldly with solo violin, its theme taken up by the full orchestra in a rich, chromatic vein that links him also to the music of his recently deceased compatriot, Mieczysław 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 trombones, the development proceeds through a series of episodes before merging seamlessly with a condensed recapitulation. The trombone phrase reappears to usher in a coda that fades to nothing.

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 arabesques around the theme, while the third variation is a self-contained, Scherzando with trio.  Its 3/8 wit and deportment are very Straussian, at moments anticipating Der Rosenkavalier.  The Gavotte continues the dancing idiom, while the 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 is already evident in the second movement. In the Finale, existing themes are put through their paces in a contrapuntal process that has hints of the grotesque in its dissonance and fervour.  At times, it even approaches the expressive world of Alban Berg.  For Szymanowski, who was unknowingly on the threshold of greater independence from Germanic influences, it marked his mastery of large-scale form which, in the Third Symphony, would lead him into even more imaginative territory.

© 2012 Adrian Thomas


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