Szymanowski’s Four Études, Op 4, were composed between 1900 and 1902. Before his Warsaw studies Szymanowski had attended the music school of his father’s cousin, Gustav Neuhaus, at Elisavetgrad, in what is now Ukraine. He dedicated these pieces to Tala (Natalia) Neuhaus, a lifelong friend. The harmonic and melodic inflections of early Scriabin are especially noticeable in the first Étude, in E flat minor, though not the distilled, evanescent brevity also characteristic of him. The second Étude, in G flat major, simultaneously divides groups of six semiquavers into subsets of both two and three to create an Escher-like, dizzying sense of conflicting perceptions. The B flat minor third Étude, which in posterity has achieved some independent fame, presents a sorrowful cantilena above slow repeating chords, rising to an imposing climactic restatement of the principal idea before reaching a sombre but subdued conclusion. The last Étude of the group offers a tantalizing glimpse of a far more tangential approach to tonality, juxtaposing hints of C major and A flat minor at the outset and launching without preamble into a restless discourse marked by obsessive repetition of short melodic motifs against a backdrop of triplet quavers. Eventually the fires burn themselves out, however, and with final calm comes unequivocal affirmation of C major as the sovereign key.
from notes by Francis Pott © 2014