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Twenty Mazurkas, Op 50

'Szymanowski: The Complete Mazurkas' (CDA67399)
Szymanowski: The Complete Mazurkas
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No 01: Sostenuto – Molto rubato
No 02: Allegramente – Poco vivace
No 03: Moderato
No 04: Allegramente, risoluto
No 05: Moderato
No 06: Vivace
No 07: Poco vivace
No 08: Moderato
No 09: Tempo moderato
No 10: Allegramente – Vivace – Con brio
No 11: Allegretto
No 12: Allegro moderato
No 13: Moderato
No 14: Animato
No 15: Allegretto dolce
No 16: Allegramente – Vigoroso
No 17: Moderato
No 18: Vivace – Agitato
No 19: Poco vivace – Animato e grazioso
No 20: Allegramente – Con brio

Twenty Mazurkas, Op 50
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.

from notes by Martin Anderson © 2003

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Details for CDA67399 track 14
Recording date
29 August 2002
Recording venue
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Szymanowski: The Complete Mazurkas (CDA67399)
    Disc 1 Track 14
    Release date: June 2003
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