* Symphony No. 2 in B-flat, op. 19^
* Symphony No. 3, op. 27 "Song of the Night"
^Ewa Marczyk (violin), Ryszard Minkiewicz (tenor)
Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Antoni Wit
Naxos 8.570721 Total time: 60:49.
Summary for the Busy Executive: Good value.
The music of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski's falls into three periods.
He begins as a follower of Richard Strauss then quickly falls under the
influence of Debussy. In roughly the mid-Twenties, he suddenly moved
to a Modern nationalistic Polish idiom, a conscious archaism, similar
to what Stravinsky had accomplished with his early ballets, and continued
mainly in that vein until his premature death in 1937. I can't deny his
power as a composer in any of his styles, even though I don't care for
the first two. To me, he becomes really interesting (rather than merely
a superb craftsman) only from the Twenties on. To some extent, one can
attribute this to the conservativism of Polish musical life at the time,
where Richard Strauss (and not necessarily something as harsh as Elektra)
represented the "music from Pluto." As Szymanowski comes into contact
with the work of Debussy and the Stravinsky-influenced French, his idiom
The two symphonies here fall into Szymanowski's earlier two phases. I'd
call each, in its own way, over the top.
The premiere audience in Warsaw hated the second symphony, but the score
went down more smoothly abroad. I should mention that no less a critic
than Deems Taylor liked Szymanowski's second symphony when he heard it
in 1922. Writing for the New York World, he rated it the best work he
had heard that year. Second-best was a piece by Charles Martin Loeffler.
Ravel's La Valse, Falla's El Sombrero de tres picos, and Vaughan Williams's
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis made up the contingent of also-rans.
So critics, let alone me, don't know everything.
The second symphony shows the unmistakable trace of Richard Strauss,
particularly the Symphonia domestica (1903), although Szymanowski scores
less thickly. Nevertheless, it shares the idiom and the formal gigantism
of its predecessor. In two large movements, it begins with a super-sonata
(three major thematic groups) and ends with a theme-and-variations
movement. The second movement in turn breaks down into a lyrical opening,
a suite of dances (scherzo, gavotte, minuet), and an introduction and
huge fugue. In general, I can pretty much leave post-Wagnerian chromaticism
alone. It tends to run together for me. Strauss differs from the run
of the mill in that he can create memorable melodies and gestures out
of that chromaticism. Szymanowski does not, at least not here. The
best parts of the movement occur when Szymanowski gets into a lyrical
vein similar to Rachmaninoff's. The link may well be Chopin. I admire
the second movement, moreover, for the care toward and seamlessness of
the transitions from variation to another. It turns out that the theme
of the second movement is a relative of the first subject of the opening
movement. Normally I would delight in a twist like this, but in this
case it emphasizes the sameness of the work.
The third symphony, even "further out" than the second, premiered in
London. In three movements, it features a tenor in the first and last,
with an orchestral interlude, augmented by a Ravelian wordless chorus,
in the middle. The text comes from Persian poetry, although I doubt
the accuracy of the Polish translation. It belongs to the tradition
of hot-house orientalism found in composers like Bantock which played
a part in throwing off Victorian and Edwardian inhibitions about sex.
You either care for this sort of thing or you don't. I find it about
as deep as a griddle. Szymanowski follows Debussy rather than Strauss,
but the symphony has the same kind of problem as the second: you keep
waiting for something to happen, and you wait for Godot. Instead of
Straussian noodling around, it's Impressionistic noodling around, and
you feel like you're listening to white noise or like a cat is rubbing
against your leg for twenty-five minutes. Even more gorgeously scored
than the second, the symphony nevertheless goes nowhere and in a bigger
hurry. I stress, however, that your mileage may vary.
No complaints at all about the performance. I've never heard anything
less than a marvelous reading from Antoni Wit, never mind what I think
of the piece or the quality of the orchestra. Tenor soloist Ryszard
Minkiewicz sounds a bit thin, but to be fair, Szymanowski puts a lot
of orchestra behind him. The engineering could be better. Some of
the climaxes seem sonically over-saturated and hence muddy. Still,
the Warsaw Philharmonic manages to unravel Szymanowski's textures
almost all the time.
Naxos has a nice Symanowski mini-series going with conductors Wit
and Karol Stryja, among others, including recordings of the opera King
Roger, the Stabat mater, the Harnasie and Mandragora ballets, both string
quartets and both violin concerti, all four symphonies, and so on. The
Naxos price invites you to explore.
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