No 01: Presto
No 02: Andantino soave
No 03: Vivace assai (agitato)
No 04: Presto (delicamente)
No 05: Andante espressivo
No 06: Vivace (agitato e marcato, vigoroso)
No 07: Allegro molto (con brio, burlesco)
No 08: Lento assai mesto (espressivo)
No 09: Animato (capriccioso e fantastico)
No 10: Presto tempestoso (molto agitato)
No 11: Andante soave
No 12: Presto (energico)
It may be pertinent that Szymanowski had imbibed so much Islamic art on his travels in North Africa; for much of the beauty and mystical power of such work resides in the subtlety, but also hypnotic repetition, of its patterning. An étude offers an apposite foil, its tradition having rested historically upon repetition of a specific figuration throughout a brief movement, with technical drill for the executant usually in mind as much as pure musical expression. Nonetheless, Szymanowski seemingly approached even these pieces as abstract pictures; and, in listening, it may be helpful to think of the way in which a modern visual artist might use the term ‘study’: without the intervening medium of a performer, a canvas becomes its own contemplative statement of an inner world. Possibly aware of Debussy’s Études for piano (1915) as fresh appraisals which were really studies in compositional texture, Szymanowski appropriated the term for what remains primarily a poetic articulation of mood. Far from withering in the face of this confining framework, his distinctive harmony evolves in newly elliptical ways, reminding us of Stravinsky’s dictum that the artist needs constraints in order to find true freedom.
The first Étude flickers in a crepuscular way before expiring on a distinctly blues-like, bitonal chord. No 2 explores the interval of the major second before expanding into a more opulent, but still restrained, texture. No 3 hints at recurrence of the first, and at texturally varied revisiting of the same ideas, thereby implying the possibility of a kind of rondo construct spread across the set, though this proves largely illusory. Diatonic melodic shapes are continually subverted by underlying harmonic contexts which pull in some other tonal direction, the disjunction lending freshness to what might otherwise be tried and tested ground. No 4 leads out of No 3 almost without a break, and creates an agile shimmering between more hesitant moments where memories of the abstract-titled works fleetingly resurface. The piece ends in sudden affirmation of E flat minor, whereupon No 5 reverts to the use of a key signature to consolidate the major equivalent in a brief melodic meditation whose nineteenth-century antecedents (especially Chopin) seem to make a ghostly appearance. In contrast, No 6 hints at the patterning of one or two of Scriabin’s more turbulent early preludes and études. Clear tonality disappears as abruptly as it had arrived. As if these central pieces were an unwitting fulcrum, No 7 seems not to remember Chopin as much as anticipate Lutoslawski and his neglected, shortlived contemporary, Grazyna Bacewicz. No 8 again hints at nineteenth-century models through a distorting aural mirror, its disconsolate quality prefiguring moments in Prokofiev’s ‘war’ sonatas (Nos 6, 7 and 8). As in other contexts, a pitch heard as tangential at the outset (in this case D) is tonally consolidated in a conventional ending. No 9 is spasmodically whimsical, No 10 a driven and ominous toccata. No 11 packs a kaleidoscopic dreamscape into nine dense bars. Visually resembling, perhaps parodying, Scriabin’s Étude in D flat major, Op 8 No 10, the last piece hurtles by in thirds, briefly losing impetus before gathering for a final onslaught reminiscent of Prokofiev’s demonic Op 11 Toccata. When the music seems over, a final surprise arrives in the form of a would-be diatonic ending so disjunct from the rest of the piece as to suggest nose-thumbing at tonality itself. To the last, this remarkable composer makes no concession to those unable or unwilling to adapt to his eclectic yet uniquely distinctive world.
from notes by Francis Pott © 2014