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Hyperion Records

CDA67703 - Szymanowski: Complete music for violin & piano
Water Nymph (detail) by Otto Theodor Gustav Lingner (1856-1917)
Private Collection / Agra Art, Warsaw / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: July 2008
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: May 2009
Total duration: 76 minutes 15 seconds


'Ibragimova and Tiberghien make a winning combination, both in the sweltering sensuality of the central works and in the more conventional late-Romantic effulgence of the warm-hearted Sonata of 1909 … this repertoire should be high on the priority list of all those interested in 20th-century violin music, and it's not easy to imagine a stronger case being made for it than here' (Gramophone)

'This is a performance that shows Ibragimova's art at her remarkable best; at one moment poised, the next playing with abandon, she is one of the most expressive violinists around' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Ibragimova and Tiberghien produce beautifully characterised accounts, whether in the veiled contours of the Nocturne and the explosion of rhythmic energy that follows it in the Tarantella, or in the refined exoticism of Mythes, with its strange mixture of classical evocation and sensuous indulgence' (The Guardian)

'We are living in a Second Golden Age of violinists, but even in the context of Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowitz and Julia Fischer, Alina Ibragimova is an astonishing talent … technically the playing is superb. Intonation is exceptional, and Ibragimova's timbral range—from the coarse to the silken, from the richly throbbing to the chastely disembodied—seems unlimited. The music is studded with challenges … she tosses it all off with self-confident authority … Cédric Tiberghien, with whom Ibragimova has played often, offers a real partnership rather than mere support … this is a major release' (International Record Review)

'Ibragimova's stunningly potent technique—the stuff of legend even in the close scrutiny of the digital age—is soon forgotten in a sensuous croon through which the more extravagantly impossible the violinistic hurdles, the more ecstatically glorious her tone becomes. Indeed, hurdles do not exist for her, and the usual descriptive and critical terms are useless, if only because they suggest comparison with other artists suddenly dwarfed by the incomparable. Such phrases as 'a tonal palette ranging from guttural coruscation to the most brilliantly glowing scintillance' simply will not do. There is a touch of the uncanny here, even a suggestion of the human voice—as of whispers, sighs, moans, wailing—in which the notes dissolve into a direct spiritual prehension. Ibragimova does not play or perform—she utterly possesses' (Fanfare, USA)

'The early violin sonata is especially fine, as are the little-known Paganini caprices' (The Evening Standard)

'The beautiful 24-year-old Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova teams with French pianist Cedric Tiberghien to prove that Szymanowski's violin music is the most impressive of his chamber music, especially the Scriabinesque Violin Sonata in D-minor Op 9. An exceptional disc' (The Buffalo News, USA)

Complete music for violin & piano
Nocturne  [6'07]
Tarantella  [5'33]

This disc contains some of Szymanowski’s most overtly sensual and vividly gestural music; his lush, exotic textures intensified and crystallized in miniature.

From the early Violin Sonata in D minor onwards, evidence of the composer’s unusual brilliance in writing for solo violin is paramount. The Romance in D major Op 23 (1910), first performed in Warsaw in April 1913, already reveals a considerable advance towards the exotic, strangely inward exaltation of mature works. In the extraordinary Mythes (1915) Szymanowski reaches the zenith of his artistry, creating ‘a new mode of expression for the violin’ and through this an intoxicating, other-wordly musical language.

This recording features the wonderful young violinist Alina Ibragimova, who appears on her third Hyperion disc. Her growing catalogue is receiving the highest critical acclaim. Accompanying her is an equally youthful yet highly distinguished performer, the French pianist Cédric Tiberghien.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
'There he was: a tall, slender young man. He looked older than his twenty-one years, dressed all in black, still in mourning, wearing a bowler hat and gloves—appearing more like a diplomat than a musician. But his beautiful, large, gray-blue eyes had a sad, intelligent and most sensitive expression. He walked towards us with a slight limp … and accepted our welcome with a polite but aloof smile.'

Thus the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein recalled his first meeting with Karol Szymanowski in his memoir My Young Years. The encounter had been prompted by Rubinstein’s introduction to some early Szymanowski scores through the violinist Bronislaw Gromadzki. The pianist recalled his astonishment upon finding that this music ‘had been written by a master! … His style owed much to Chopin, his form had something of Scriabin, but there was already the stamp of a powerful, original personality to be felt in the line of his melody and in his daring and original modulations.’ The encounter, at Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains, inaugurated a friendship which was to end only with the composer’s premature death (seemingly from cancer of the lungs and larynx, though compounded by intermittent tuberculosis extending back into childhood) at a Lausanne sanatorium on 29 March 1937. The limp noted by Rubinstein was attributable to a childhood accident; the mourning to the recent death of the composer’s father, Stanislaw Korwin-Szymanowski.

Karol Maciej Szymanowski, the third of five children, was born into a privileged artistic family on 6 October 1882. Its estate was at Tymoszówka in the Ukraine, part of the Russian Empire since the annexation of that area of Poland. The family itself had an illustrious and unimpeachably Polish pedigree, matched by a fervent patriotism which never left the composer despite his nomadic later existence. Between 1901 and 1904 Karol studied privately in Warsaw (then something of a cultural backwater) with Zawirski for harmony and Noskowski for counterpoint and composition. He and his friend, the composer and conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg, were two of a group who styled themselves as Mloda Polska, or ‘Young Poland in Music’, though this set out to proclaim no particular shared ideals, and ironically was in any case powerfully influenced by the Germanic tradition. Szymanowski’s music before the Great War is steeped not only in the influences noted by Rubinstein, but also in Wagner and, very noticeably, Reger, whose densely reinforced counterpoint exerted a powerful effect especially upon the first two of Szymanowski’s three piano sonatas, dating respectively from 1904 and 1911. It is interesting that Reger’s own output is polarized by works in this vein and much lighter, deftly scored conceptions such as his orchestral Variations on a theme by Johann Adam Hiller. Szymanowski rejected his own first symphony, dismissing it as a ‘monster’ on grounds of its intractable polyphonic congestion—and it is not unreasonable to see the rest of his output in general terms as a conscious effort to break free of such complexity into the purer air of an exotically idiosyncratic musical language, where chordal density is offset both by diaphanous orchestration and, in contrasting episodes, by a telling economy that leaves Reger far behind.

During the War years Szymanowski read voraciously, his discoveries including the contemporaneous Alsatian scholar of Byzantine art Charles Diehl, the works of Plato and Leonardo, and the cultural histories of Islam, ancient Rome and early Christianity. Between 1911 and 1914 he travelled widely with his friend Stefan Spiess, visiting Italy, Sicily and North Africa. In 1913 he discovered the music of Stravinsky, excitedly proclaiming him a genius. From this point his interest in Germanic musical tradition all but evaporated and he drew increasingly upon Persian Sufi sources of inspiration, as in the transitional Love Songs of Hafiz, Op 26 (1914), though the Dionysiac strain which complemented this had been absorbed initially from The Birth of Tragedy, the work by Nietzsche to which Szymanowski remained devoted. The influence of French musical Impressionism was by now detectable too.

In 1917 Revolution swept away the old order and, with it, the Szymanowski family’s estate. The years following were a transitional period in which Karol visited England, the USA and, intriguingly, Cuba, which fascinated and delighted him. Subsequently he moved mainly between Warsaw, the Tatras and Paris, having established a considerable reputation in France. From 1924 he received greater recognition in Poland itself, particularly on account of his first violin concerto, in which a rarefied mood of often muted ecstasy rests upon the meeting of seemingly airless, ‘hothouse’ chromaticism and a translucent orchestral palette applied often with subtly fastidious delicacy. If one senses in that work an abiding debt to Scriabin, by then it was to the iconoclast that Scriabin increasingly became as his pianistic allegiance to Chopin waned.

Fatefully, in 1926 Szymanowski accepted the post of Principal at the Warsaw Conservatory. The Herculean task of dragging a dysfunctional institution kicking and screaming into the twentieth century proved a massive strain upon his nerves and constitution, and his heavy smoking and drinking appear to have been accompanied by morphine or cocaine addiction. In 1930 he was appointed Rector of the new State Academy of Music, but this was summarily closed down by an incoming Minister of Education two years later, leaving him impoverished, sick and obliged to work to survive. Like others before and since, he had to depend largely on performing as a pianist. Unlike a Rachmaninov or a Medtner, however, he was not a trained virtuoso and his playing was noted more for a certain intuitive sensitivity than for its technique. Moreover, this rootless mode of existence obviated further creative work, while his years at the Conservatory had played their part in inhibiting expansion of his reputation as a composer at home. In 1933 he travelled through Poland, France, Spain, Italy, Russia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Denmark, adding further parts of Scandinavia in 1935. A highly successful premiere in Prague of his ‘ballet-pantomime’ Harnasie led to more acclaim the following year in Paris, but no further performances were forthcoming as a result, nor material prosperity. The composer had already been forced to give up the cottage which he rented in Zakopane, and his final years are a forlorn tale of advancing sickness, isolation and disillusionment.

The Violin Sonata in D minor Op 9 (1904) was first performed in Warsaw during 1909 by Rubinstein and the violinist Pawel Kochanski (1887–1934), another longstanding friend of the composer. It is a conventionally structured work in three movements. The influence of Scriabin seems to arise more from such works as his densely textured Piano Sonata No 3 than from his delicately ornamental early Preludes and Impromptus. A good deal of Szymanowski’s piano-writing here is strenuously chordal, not always allowing the music the momentum to which it appears to aspire. However, there are already many moments of striking originality along the lines identified by Rubinstein, and the slow movement (featuring contrast between bowed and pizzicato—or plucked—playing styles) serves as an effective lyrical foil to the more turbulent rhetoric of the opening one. The finale is a headlong tarantella which finds some space for imitative counterpoint. Despite a somewhat routine effectiveness, especially in its peroration, the work as a whole is of much more than merely documentary interest. In the first movement particularly, the wisdom of hindsight allows us to hear in certain idiosyncratic melodic intervals the seed of later works, waiting to be awakened fully by the experience of Sicily and Algiers a few years on.

The Romance in D major Op 23 (1910), first performed in Warsaw in April 1913, already reveals a considerable advance towards the exotic, strangely inward exaltation of mature works. Both more rhapsodic in conception and more elliptical in its harmonic processes, it moves relatively early towards an opulent climax before retreating into the introspection of the opening, only to rise a second time. In a rapt conclusion the violin line soars ever higher into the stratosphere.

The three movements of Mythes Op 30 (1915) were a further product of the composer’s collaboration with Kochanski, to whose wife Szymanowski inscribed them. Writing to her in 1930, he was to claim that he and Kochanski had created ‘a new … mode of expression for the violin’. Christopher Palmer has interpreted this as meaning that the wide range of playing techniques and timbres employed in Mythes is never a virtuoso end in itself, but simply an integrated means of giving rise naturally to what the composer already wished to say. Szymanowski, he states, ‘removes the element of self-consciousness from virtuosity’. Certainly the virtuosity is as refined in nature as the music itself, in that the violin and piano parts interact seamlessly, demanding great intuitive subtlety and telepathy from both players. In the first movement, La fontaine d’Aréthuse, the cool iridescence of the piano’s opening bars is met by another soaring violin soliloquy before the texture becomes punctuated by tremolandi and abrupt roulades of notes from the keyboard. Double-stoppings, glissandi and other timbral modifications are subsequently enlisted. The inscrutable mystery of this vividly gestural music offers testimony to the life-changing effect of Szymanowski’s travels in those few charmed years before the onset of war.

The second movement, Narcisse, conveys a more heart-sick languor. Szymanowski’s homosexuality undoubtedly informed his response to the Nietzschean Dionysiac theme and presumably added to other personal epiphanies encountered in more exotic (and liberal) parts of the world. The music embodies two clearly defined themes in its opening section, but diversifies in its central passage before undergoing an almost claustrophobic degree of contrapuntal superimposition. The self-longing of Narcissus finds an apt musical parallel, in which perhaps we discover the composer too gazing over the youth’s shoulder at the reflection in the water. This is neither unduly fanciful nor prurient, since Szymanowski was also the author of a homoerotic novel, Ephebos, a portion of which survives to indicate an expounding of his beliefs concerning the interdependency of carnal love and artistic fertility.

The final Mythe, entitled Dryades et Pan, is a scherzo in which, to quote Christopher Palmer’s apt description, ‘a hot summer wind blows through the forest, causing it to tremor and quiver into activity’. Deft exploitation of the constant open D string of the violin and oscillating quarter-tone pitches above and below on the G string produce the kind of effect one can imagine Milton having envisaged when he wrote in Lycidas of airs that ‘Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw’. This is intensified later by violin harmonics, initially unaccompanied, then awakening from the piano a response reminiscent of the opening to La fontaine d’Aréthuse. This section embodies one passage of striking similarity to Debussy’s Cello Sonata, intriguingly written in the very same year. The ‘fast’ music balances hectic surface activity and slower-moving harmonic blocks. The movement makes as if to return to its beginnings, but is subverted by further arpeggiated harmonics like some ghostly ‘Last Post’ drifting far above the bass register of the piano. After the briefest of references to the opening, the hot summer wind snuffs itself out, vanishing almost as abruptly as the malign presence in Ravel’s infamous goblinesque solo-piano inspiration Scarbo (from Gaspard de la nuit).

The Nocturne and Tarantella Op 28 was composed in the same year as Mythes, 1915. The Nocturne shares initial ground with Mythes before breaking into spasmodic bursts of Hispanic dance. It has been plausibly suggested by Alistair Wightman that the composer’s constant preoccupation with dance may have related to his physical disability; certainly dance surfaces intermittently in virtually all the major works of Szymanowski’s transitional middle period. The Nocturne attenuates to an enervated conclusion before the febrile onset of the Tarantella, where the distance covered by Szymanowski since the generically comparable Violin Sonata’s finale is immediately apparent. The music oddly combines maniacal rhythmic insistence with the kind of Pierrot-like neurasthenia associated (again) with Debussy’s Cello Sonata. Its strangely unplaceable, yet constantly allusive style is reminiscent also in a general way of Busoni, not least through the final, apparently mischievous nod at convention in an unambiguous ‘perfect’ cadence. A natural—if sophisticated—crowd-pleaser, the work was later orchestrated by Grzegorz Fitelberg.

In the Three Paganini Caprices Op 40 (1918) a reinventing-from-within of an earlier composer’s thought processes intensifies the kinship with Busoni. Szymanowski had rented an apartment in Vienna before the War, but had found Viennese cultural life enclosed and stifling. The emergence of Paganini in waltz form here, sometimes dripping with sentiment, may be a wry comment on Vienna, or on Paganini, or both—the latter because his was the type of self-aware virtuosity inimical in every way to the abstract and intrinsic subtleties described by Christopher Palmer in relation to Mythes. The last of the three Caprices here proves to be none other than ‘that’ tune yet again, subjected to grandly ironic display and here preceding Rachmaninov’s celebrated attentions by some sixteen years. Doubtless Szymanowski’s compatriot Witold Lutoslawski enlisted the present work as a reference point when in 1941 he fashioned his own Variations for two pianos on Paganini’s most celebrated inspiration.

Jim Samson has noted how Szymanowski’s voice in this slightly later period took on a ‘stark linear quality’, and the simplicity of momentum in the Berceuse Op 52 (1925) offers a striking contrast, even if that might be expected in a work bearing this title. The tonal disjunction between violin and piano in the opening measures suggests two personalities pushed apart into their separate worlds by some nameless grief, and despite some textural expansion in the central stages the piece preserves an ashen and disconsolate air that is both unsettling and affecting—perhaps reminiscent in a fortuitous way of the post-War new radicalism of Frank Bridge’s second piano trio or third and fourth string quartets.

Like Bridge, Szymanowski was to be the proverbial prophet without honour in his native land—and beyond. Rubinstein later recalled having shared a crossing of the Channel to England with Rachmaninov. The Russian composer began to denounce many modern composers, but brightened when the pianist spoke warmly of Szymanowski. ‘Then you like his music?’, asked Rubinstein. ‘What?’ exclaimed Rachmaninov. ‘His music is shit. It is the man who is very nice.’ For all his devoted friends, Szymanowski died near-destitute and alone but for his sister. ‘What a bitter irony!’ wrote Rubinstein of his funeral. ‘For years they [the Polish government] had made my poor Karol suffer through their meanness and now they were willing to spend a fortune on this big show.’ For too long a figure aloof from the mainstream of great music, Szymanowski is perhaps still only beginning to be understood and valued as he has always deserved.

The author wishes to record his debt in certain areas to the scholarship of Professor Jim Samson and the late Christopher Palmer.

Francis Pott © 2009

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