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Hyperion Records

CDA67399 - Szymanowski: The Complete Mazurkas
A day of Celebration in Old Russia (1884) by Nicolai Dmitrieff-Orenburgsky (1838-1898)
Sotheby’s Picture Library

Recording details: August 2002
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: June 2003
Total duration: 70 minutes 52 seconds


'Hamelin is an astonishing virtuoso, yet this music demonstrates that the French-Canadian pianist is much more than a purveyor of keyboard fireworks. His immediate advocacy of the mazurkas, the Valse Romantique and Four Polish Dances should win more friends for this unjustly neglected byway of 20th-century piano repertoire' (The Sunday Times)

'Marc-André Hamelin is a near-ideal advocate of this repertoire; alive to every nuance in these scores' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Such elusive music requires a pianist of rare sensitivity and dexterity and in Marc-André Hamelin Szymanowski has been granted a true champion. A marvel of stylistic inwardness and pianistic refinement, his performances capture the Mazurkas’ alternating whimsy and rigour to perfection' (Gramophone)

'Their highly original, sensual harmonies and sophisticated writing demand a refined pianist of imagination to make a persuasive case. Hamelin gets inside each miniature to do just that, and in beautifully recorded sound' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Hamlin does, I think, set a new benchmark … A very notable disc. If you don’t already know this great music, I strongly urge you to buy it' (International Record Review)

'Marc-André Hamelin defines the character of each piece vividly, readily tuning into their dark soulfulness' (The Evening Standard)

'perfect territory for Marc-André Hamelin’s stylish and evocative playing' (The Independent)

'Marc-André Hamelin plays them with fantasy and rhythmic snap' (The Irish Times)

'on ne pouvait s’attendre à plus agréable surprise que ce programme présentant les dernières œvres pour piano du compositeur polonaise Karol Szymanowski' (Répertoire, France)

The Complete Mazurkas
Moderato  [2'39]
Moderato  [2'32]
Vivace  [1'56]
Poco vivace  [2'04]
Moderato  [2'43]
Tempo moderato  [3'18]
Allegretto  [1'26]
Allegro moderato  [3'38]
Moderato  [3'25]
Animato  [1'51]
Allegretto dolce  [2'46]
Moderato  [2'44]
Mazurek  [1'14]
Krakowiak  [1'14]
Oberek  [3'58]
Polonaise  [3'13]
Moderato  [3'27]

The Mazurka is a traditional Polish dance in three-time with an often erratic-seeming emphasis on the second beat. It was Chopin who made of it the vehicle for some of his most intimately ruminative and also laconic utterances; he took this dance idiom even further into a world of human expression than he did with his waltzes—and thereby set a tradition that yields these ravishingly elusive masterpieces that gently exude all Szymanowski’s most subtle chromatic surprises and delights. They seem to encapsulate all we think of as Polish in sensibility as well as universal glimpses of irony and melancholy, energy and exuberance—often enough all in the gruff elegance of one piece!

Marc-André Hamelin continues his exclusive Hyperion voyage around the hidden coves and treasure troves of the piano repertoire with this important issue of pieces that will quickly win their way to the hearts of listeners new to their charms.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The piano was an integral part of Karol Szymanowski’s musical life. He was seven when he began his first lessons on the instrument, studying initially with his father and then with his uncle, Gustav Neuhaus—whose son, Genryk (Heinrich or Harry), Szymanowski’s cousin, was later to be the teacher of Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and Radu Lupu. The Nine Preludes, Op 1, some of which may have been written when he was only fourteen, attracted the support of Artur Rubinstein, a valuable early champion. It was the third of his Four Études, Op 4, that brought Szymanowski his first taste of popular success. Throughout his life, his music was written at the piano, and it was playing the piano that fed him in a particularly difficult period of his career, in 1932–35; indeed, the Sinfonia Concertante, his Fourth Symphony, written in 1932, became a vehicle for his own performance—he was a highly capable pianist, though no virtuoso.

Szymanowski’s piano works follow the general division of his music into three broad periods. The early ones—from the Nine Preludes, mostly written c1899–1900, to the Sonata No 2, Op 21, written in 1910–11—were composed under the shadow of Romanticism, and especially of Chopin. (Szymanowski’s respect for Chopin never weakened, though his obligation to him did.) A middle period (1914–18), Impressionist in orientation, comprises Métopes, Op 29 (1915), Masques, Op 34 (1915–16), the Twelve Études, Op 33 (1916), and the Third Sonata, Op 36, written in 1917. The final stylistic phase of Szymanowski’s output—his engagement with Polish nationalism—begins in 1920 and covers the Twenty Mazurkas, Op 50, of 1924–25, an isolated Valse Romantique from 1925, Four Polish Dances (1926) and the Two Mazurkas, Op 62, his final keyboard offering, composed in 1933–34.

Any manifestation of ‘Polishness’ in Szymanowski’s earlier music was slight. The third of his Variations on an Original Theme, Op 3 (1901–03) is marked Andantino quasi tempo di mazurka, though its folk characteristics are gently downplayed. And although he wrote a set of Variations on a Polish Folk Theme, Op 10, in 1900–04, he used the tune in the sanitised, emasculated form in which it had been published in an 1888 anthology. Otherwise, an engagement with folk music was the last thing on his mind: in his early twenties, indeed, he was a member of ‘The Publishing Group of Young Polish Composers’, a musical equivalent, founded in 1905, of the turn-of-the-century anti-materialist literary movement ‘Mloda Polska’ (‘Young Poland’), which exalted the role of the artist above the base considerations of the day—hardly fruitful soil for the seeds of nationalism.

The catalyst for the sudden flowering of his interest came many years later. The town of Zakopane—in the district of Podhale, in the Tatra mountains, by the current Polish border with Slovakia—had become a tourist centre and artists’ retreat since a railway line had made the town accessible in 1899: architecture, woodcraft, poetry and other forms of writing—all found distinct local expression or attracted artists from further afield. Zakopane was also the headquarters of a flourishing enthomusicological research project, headed by Dr Adolf Chybinski, who was a university professor in Lwów—the ‘Podhale music “rescue service”’, as Szymanowski termed them in a 1924 article, ‘On Highland Music’ (reprinted in Alistair Wightman (ed.), Szymanowski on Music, Toccata Press, London, 1999, pp 115–25).

The music of the Tatras, writes Jim Samson in The Music of Szymanowski (Kahn & Averill, London, 1980, p 167):

can be traced back at least as far as Jan Krzeptowski Sabala, a story-teller, hunter and, according to legend, highland robber […] in the mid-nineteenth century. [… It] is certainly quite distinct from any other region in Poland, having more in common with the music of other non-Polish inhabitants of the Carpathians. It is characterized by various kinds of polyphonic singing for high mens’ and deep womens’ voices, included distended parallelism, by the use of pedal points either of open fifths and of jarring minor seconds and by a remarkable heterophony of two fiddles over a simple bass on a three-stringed instrument. The repertoire of tunes is fairly modest and a great deal depends on the quality of the improvisations based upon these tunes. There is a tendency for Lydian patterns and descending shapes to predominate.

Szymanowski had been following Stravinsky’s development with considerable interest, and was particularly impressed with his forging of a new idiom from Russia’s folk-music heritage. He had already been thinking about what might mark modern Polish music as Polish without confining it to an inward-looking provincialism. So when in March 1920 Adolf Chybinski introduced Szmanowski to Góral (‘highlander’) music, he was knocking on an open door, as Chybinski later recalled (‘Karol Szymanowski a Podhale’, quoted in Szymanowski on Music, p 53):

The increasingly topical matter of musical folk-lore in relation to musical creativity came up because it had to. And as I was occupied at that time with the musical culture of Podhale, I could not let slip the chance to bring up some of the primitivism and individuality of the music of the Tatra. One of the ‘Sabala’ motives, played with a primitive harmonic accompaniment of only two notes (bagpipe drones) caught Szymanowski’s attention with its particular tonal individuality. He asked for it to be repeated. We went through other mountain melodies, but we came back to it. I repeated this so archaic, and, in its barbaric ‘simplicity’, so powerful motive […] with the thought that ‘perhaps something will come of this’, so stubbornly did Szymanowski dwell on it.

Chybinski was right. That ‘Sabala’ motive featured in the first of Szymanowski’s works to embrace the influence of Tatra folk-music, the song-cycle ‘Slopiewnie’, Op 46b (1921), to texts by the poet Julian Tuwin, in a quasi-Joycean invented pan-Slavic language. And ‘Slopiewnie’ inaugurated the phase in Szymanowski’s music that scholars have labelled ‘lechitic’—a term taken from linguistics, where it refers to the group of west Slavonic languages that includes Polish.

The 20 Mazurkas, Op 50 (they were published in five sets between 1926 and 1931, each with four mazurkas apiece), were begun in parallel with Szymanowski’s orchestration of his magnum opus, the opera King Roger, in the first half of 1924. Sixteen of them were ready by the end of the year, with the final four following by the spring of 1925. He used the Op 50 Mazurkas as a drawing board, an experimental template to explore his lechitic keyboard style: form, tonality, rhythm—all are exploited in the search for a new music language which would fuse the characteristic features of highland music with Szymanowski’s mature idiom. He was working with the grain of his natural mode of writing, since whole-tone and tritonal intervals were already part of it. (His approach is set in context, and documented in detail, in Alistair Wightman’s authoritative Karol Szymanowski: His Life and Works, Ashgate, Aldershot, 1999.)

His first task was to reconcile conflicting rhythms—since the mazurka is in triple time, as opposed to the duple of Tatra dances—and did so by employing a drastic rhythmic liberty to obscure the symmetrical phrases of the mazurka, using dotted notes, spreading rhythmic patterns over the barline, avoiding predictable dynamic stress. No 11 uses five-bar phrases, and No 16 has phrases seven bars in length. At the other extreme, No 8 constructs its phrases from single-bar cells.

The larger structures are unpredictable, too. Eight of the Mazurkas (Nos 4, 5, 8, 11, 13, 16, 17 and 19) are in a straightforward ternary form, plus coda. Nos 2, 7, 9 and 12 are rondos. And No 11 is a set of variations.

Szymanowski’s melodic style in the Op 50 Mazurkas is both highly distinctive and infinitely malleable. The sharpened fourths and flattened sevenths typical of Góral music can be found in the ‘Sabala’ motive quoted in Mazurka No 1 and they persist throughout the set. Occasionally (as in No 2) Szymanowski writes pentatonic figures that allude to the folk-music of central Poland; No 12 uses a shape found in the Mazowsze plain around Warsaw. He can vary scales, as in No 5. And No 17 exhibits a typical Szymanowskian practice of answering a rising melodic shape with a falling one. Decoration is another persistent feature, with mordents suggesting the improvisatory approach of the folk-musician.

Another prominent folk-element is the use of a drone fifth, suggesting the dudy, or bagpipes, of the Góral musicians. Szymanowski deploys it imaginatively, lightly in Nos 1 and 11, as a martellato single note in Nos 12 and 18, and with a second fifth drone, a ninth higher than the first, in Nos 4 and 10. He can present two separate melodic strands in different keys or tonal areas: No 3 throws C sharp major/minor and A minor against each other, and No 20 does the same with C major and D major. Sometimes he avoids key areas altogether: the whole-tone No 9 settles on E flat only in its final moments, and the highly chromatic No 19 does not make even that reluctant compromise.

Between the two sets of mazurkas comes first the Valse Romantique, written in October 1925 for Emil Hertzka as a contribution to the celebrations of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of Universal Edition in Vienna (the piece was lost from view and rediscovered only four decades later). Its satirical tone reveals the influence of Ravel’s La valse, composed four years earlier, and suggests that the title is ironic—as, indeed, more obliquely, was Ravel’s. In 1926 there followed the Four Polish Dances, likewise written for a publisher, in this instance Oxford University Press, for an anthology entitled Folk Dances of the World. These four miniatures—a mazurka, krakowiak, oberek and polonaise—show a lustier, less radical embrace of Polish folk-music than the Opp 50 and 62 Mazurkas: the Oberek in particular has an exhilaratingly earthy vigour.

The two isolated mazurkas of Op 62, the first composed in 1933, the second in 1934, are not only his last pieces for the piano: they are the last works that, raddled with tuberculosis, he managed to complete at all. They take the austerity of the Op 50 set even further, their abstracted, improvisatory quality removing almost all echoes of their folk origin—virtually all that is left, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat, are those sharpened fourths and flattened sevenths.

In an interview given in 1936 (reproduced in Szymanowski on Music, pp 113–14), in response to the interviewer’s observation that ‘in your work it is not difficult to observe the tonal and rhythmic elements of Polish folk-song’, Szymanowski countered that:

folklore is only significant for me as a fertilising agent. My aim is the creation of a Polish style, from ‘Slopiewnie’ onwards, in which there is not one jot of folklore […].

With that ‘Sabala’ motive cropping up in ‘Slopiewnie’ and the first of the Op 50 Mazurkas and a Góral melody in the ballet Harnasie (1922–31) furnishing a fugue subject for the Second String Quartet (1927), he wasn’t being entirely accurate. But there was no doubting his sincerity when, in his 1924 article ‘On Highland Music’ (also quoted in Szymanowski on Music, pp 124–25), he commended the stimulus of Tatra folk-music and ‘the unalloyed purity of its ethnic expression’ to the Polish composers who would come after him:

I should like our young generation of Polish musicians to understand how our present anaemic musical condition could be infused with new life by the riches hidden in the Polish ‘barbarism’ which I have at last ‘uncovered’ and made my own.

This was no false modesty: the harmonic system that Szymanowski articulated in the composition of these mazurkas is unique. He was only 54 when he died, on 28 March 1937, a victim of chronic tuberculosis; quite how he would have developed the musical language he had forged himself is one of the major unanswerable questions of twentieth-century music. Among the ‘younger generation of Polish musicians’ Lutoslawski, Czeslaw Marek and Roman Maciejewski did indeed infuse their music with the riches of Polish barbarism—at least in their early works. The fact that no Polish composer has since taken up his challenge in any systematic way may, in truth, be a tribute to the deeply personal nature of his achievement.

Martin Anderson © 2003

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