• LSO Szymanowski: Symphony no.4

thumb-phpKarol Szymanowski: Symphony no.4 ‘Symphonie Concertante’
programme note written for
London, 12 and 19 December 2012; Luxembourg, 13 and 14 December 2012; Paris, 15 and 16 December 2012


There was a gap of 16 years between Szymanowski’s Third Symphony ‘Song of the Night’ (1914-16) and his next orchestral work, the Fourth Symphony (1932).  In the intervening years, he had composed his opera King Roger, in which he consummated his passion for Mediterranean culture and tussled with the Dionysian and Apollonian impulses that both drove him forward creatively and marked him personally. In 1921, during the composition of King Roger, he wrote his first work drawing on Polish sources, and this turn of direction dominated his composition for the last 16 years.

Where the Third Symphony refashioned the genre into a single-movement work for solo tenor, chorus and orchestra, the Fourth broke with tradition in a different way.  It is, effectively, a piano concerto in three movements.  The ‘concertante’ aspect refers to Szymanowski’s wish 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 exuberant folk idioms of the Tatra Mountains, where Szymanowski had a home, soon become apparent in the polyphony with 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, 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.  An alternating minor third (initially C-A on the timpani) underpins 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 first theme of the first movement.  A few piano flourishes tumble down to the start of the Finale.

Szymanowski called the 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 vigorously, 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 and the movement – with extreme and almost grotesque elements thrown in for good measure (high violins sounding anything but lyrical) – hurtles heedlessly headlong.

© 2012 Adrian Thomas


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