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Hyperion Records

LSO0731 - Szymanowski: Symphonies Nos 1 & 2
Recording details: October 2012
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Neil Hutchinson
Release date: June 2013
Total duration: 47 minutes 27 seconds

'Valery Gergiev [makes the LSO] sound as passionate as he obviously is himself about Szymanowski’s music. There’s some wonderfully committed vital, colourful playing here, and the Barbican recording lets it all through to us' (BBC Radio 3 CD Review)

'Being a natural inheritor of Scriabinesque exoticism, Szymanowski is bound to bring out the best in Scriabin’s most imaginative interpreters, which is why Valery Gergiev proves such a convincing interpreter of both works. He draws excellent playing from the London Symphony Orchestra, balances some complex textures with an expert ear and the clear, close-set recording has an impressive dynamic range. Very useful, too, to have the first two symphonies coupled on a single CD' (Gramophone)

'The LSO’s performances brim with virtuosic energy' (Listen, USA)

Symphonies Nos 1 & 2
Allegro patetico  [9'25]
Theme  [1'19]
Variation 1  [1'22]
Variation 2  [1'53]
Variation 3  [2'24]
Variation 4  [2'05]
Variation 5  [2'15]
Finale: Fugue  [6'00]

Valery Gergiev explores the intense expression, fervour and spirituality of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937) with his first recording of the early symphonies on LSO Live.

Karol Szymanowski is emerging as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, with the sheer opulence and exotic sensuousness of his music winning over an increasingly wide audience. His Symphony No 1 displays a youthful musical vision besotted with high-Romanticism and mysticism. No 2 occupies similar territory, its passion channelled into soaring violin lines and chamber textures. Both make for an entralling listening experience.

Valery Gergiev says of this project; ‘Szymanowski not only deserves to be widely heard and recognised, but his music also gives us a tremendous opportunity to understand better the development of classical music through the twentieth century.’

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
When composers are near-contemporaries, their careers and reputations present tempting opportunities for comparison. John Cage was born in 1912, Britten and Lutosławski a year later. Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies were born in 1934, Penderecki and Górecki a year earlier, within two weeks of each other. Yet arguably the most intriguing set of contemporaries includes Bartók (1881), Stravinsky and Szymanowski (1882), and Webern (1883).

Webern remains the one with the lowest profile in the concert hall, yet his reputation is high because of his radicality. Bartók and Stravinsky have maintained a central place in the pantheon of twentieth-century music. Yet neither in Szymanowski’s lifetime nor during the decades following his death in 1937 was his music part of the generally accepted canon of early twentieth-century music. For Poles this has always been a puzzle. They regard him as their most significant composer after Chopin. It is a truism which has still to be fully explored that some composers’ music has not ‘travelled’. It would be interesting, for example, to learn how highly regarded the music of Elgar was beyond England both during and after his lifetime.

Circumstances undoubtedly play their part. Szymanowski’s cultural situation cannot be separated from the fate of his country, which was under occupying powers until he was in his late 30s, including the trauma of The Great War. Polish musical life was also in the doldrums during these years; the first professional orchestra in Poland was not founded until 1901. Szymanowski had to battle to be heard, to discover what was going on in Berlin, Vienna or Paris. He was both culturally and personally an outsider.

It is sometimes argued that he was a chameleon, someone who shifted his stylistic focus too readily, that he was, to use that unnecessarily derogatory word, eclectic. This is a non-argument, as a brief glance at the careers and music of Bartók and, more particularly, Stravinsky reveals. Consistency is a valued commodity, but consistency of character outlasts shifts in style. Szymanowski’s three stylistic periods, crudely summarised as Austro-German, Franco-Arabic and Polish, may appear wildly varied, but his artistic vision remained constant and his alchemic powers unsurpassed. Thus it is, for example, that the intense lyricism of the Concert Overture and Second Symphony in his first period is heightened in the First Violin Concerto in the middle period and transmuted into something earthier in the Second Violin Concerto in the late period. His ‘voice’ is unmistakeable across his career.

Where perhaps Szymanowski’s star did not shine so brightly in Europe and North America was in his less obvious radicality or, to use a more recent term, avant-gardism. But dig beneath the surface and there you will find an astonishingly acute imagination at work, not only in harmonic ideas and textural precision but also in his unfailing rethinking of the musculature of musical structures. This is where Szymanowski approaches Debussy’s creative processes.

Szymanowski’s own view of his place in the world reinforces the impression of the outsider, of someone who found inspiration in the exotic, in the ‘other’. How great a part his sexuality played in this is open to debate, but he was more concerned with what he once called ‘My Splendid Isolation’. This article from 1922 was a bitter commentary on Polish critics who not only decried his music but also that of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Szymanowski’s musical writings (mostly from the 1920s) make fascinating reading, charting his volte-face against Austro-German hegemony, his worship of Chopin as the de facto leader of an alternative European musical culture from both East and West of Poland, and ultimately his passion for the indigenous music of his native Poland, which was establishing its own identity after over 120 years of occupation by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Szymanowski maintained a fondness and respect for Brahms, the composer with whom his music was paired in the series of LSO concerts under Valery Gergiev from which these recordings were made. In 1912, he wrote: ‘I’d rather a single bar of Brahms than the whole of modern French music, which is too superficial’. He soon changed his opinion on this latter front, but he subsequently thought of Brahms as a ‘noble, solitary figure’, perhaps sensing a parallel with his own position.

In 2012, with the LSO marking the 75th anniversary of Szymanowski’s death (1937), audiences are much better aware of his music. The upsurge in performances and recordings outside Poland began back in the mid-1970s, with the Sadler’s Wells production of his opera King Roger. This was followed by reissues on LP, then CD, of archive Polish recordings and a real boost came when Sir Simon Rattle championed his music with the CBSO. Most of Szymanowski’s music has since become widely available, sometimes in multiple recordings. But nothing can beat the live experience, especially when played by the LSO under Valery Gergiev.

Sometimes a composer’s early compositions do not become a regular part of the canon. Stravinsky’s Symphony in E flat (1905–07), for example, remains a largely neglected work. Szymanowski’s case is more complicated. His first orchestral piece, the Concert Overture (1904–05), written at the end of his studies in Warsaw, has remained one of his most performed, even though it is clearly influenced by the style and swagger of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan. Its confident air and sense of purpose did not, however, carry over into Szymanowski’s first attempt at full symphonic writing.

It is fair to say that Szymanowski’s First Symphony (1906–07) was something of a reverse in his creative fortunes and is best regarded as a flawed if valiant attempt to write on a larger orchestral scale. The pre-eminent writer on Szymanowski’s life and work, Teresa Chylińska, goes so far as to call it a ‘complicated and insincere composition’. This may be slightly harsh, but even Szymanowski realised its shortcomings (‘I don’t like it’), and only the two outer movements were completed. Szymanowski withdrew it after its first performance in 1909.

While he wrestled with it, he predicted that it would be ‘some sort of contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral monster’. The main reason for the work’s problems was Szymanowski’s determination to develop his technical expertise, especially in polyphonic orchestral writing. At this time, he was intrigued by the music of Max Reger, whose dense textures influenced Szymanowski not only in the First Symphony but also the more successful Second Symphony (1909–10).

Despite its shortcomings, which have been exaggerated, the First Symphony provides many insights into Szymanowski’s musical character as well as some of the prevailing trends of the time. First and foremost, there is an emotional intensity that is not only typical of subsequent Szymanowski scores but links across to, say, Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903). This is particularly apparent in the interlinking of full orchestral and chamber-like passages and in the quasi-dramatic shifts between sweeping lines and introspection.

The first movement is succinctly structured and, it might be argued, would have worked even better on a larger scale. In the surviving second movement – intended to be the finale – Szymanowski focuses on high lyricism. During its composition, he’d described it as ‘very light-hearted’, although little trace of this remains in the finished score, which is marked by its increasingly turbulent orchestration.

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 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.

Adrian Thomas © 2012

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