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CLASSICAL  April 2009

CLASSICAL April 2009

Subject:

Greece and Judea

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 7 Apr 2009 21:08:07 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (106 lines)

Karel Szymanowski

*  Stabat Mater, op. 53
*  Veni Creator, op. 57
*  Litany to the Virgin Mary, op. 59
*  Demeter, op. 37b
*  Penthesilea, op. 18

Iwona Hossa (soprano)
Ewa Marciniec (mezzo)
Jaroslaw Brek (baritone)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Antoni Wit
Naxos 8.570724  Total time: 59:26

Summary for the Busy Executive: Beauty.

Szymanowski's music went through several changes, beginning in a Straussian
chromatic fog and ending up in searing clarity.  This program covers
many of those phases.

Penthesilea, from 1908, belongs to a fin de siecle genre -- a Hellenism
which, despite its borrowings and scenery, had little to do with classical
Greece.  If you read writers like Wilde, Louys, and d'Annunzio, you get
the impression that all people did in mythological Greece was indiscriminate
humping ("with either sex at either end") mixed with S & M and bizarre
slaughter.  Hofmannsthal probably produced the lasting work in this vein.
Over almost all of it, however, hangs a steamy atmosphere like a cloying,
heavy perfume.  Musically, Granville Bantock seems to me the composing
poster-boy for such stuff, although Debussy's Le martyre de St.  Sebastien
and Strauss's Elektra probably rank as the major musical masterpieces.
This sort of exoticism attracted Szymanowski for far too long, even when
the locale changed from Greece to Persia, as in his Third Symphony.
Penthesilea, a dramatic scena for soprano and orchestra, falls short of
all these marks, but it's not terrible.  In it, the queen of the Amazons
confesses her love (forbidden, of course) for Achilles.  Its lack of
direction is its main problem.  It's not particularly dramatic or
revelatory of character.

Demeter (1917-24) is a different story.  Szymanowski sets a sonnet by
his sister Zofia on the legend of Demeter and Persephone.  A distraught
Demeter searches through the night for her daughter, abducted by Hades.
The hothouse pong has lifted a bit, and although we still get a lush
(and dramatically inapt) orchestra, Demeter's anxiety comes through.

Szymanowski was always a fine composer, but in the Twenties he became
an interesting, even great one.  From 1911 to 1914, he left Warsaw and
its provincial, conservative music scene for Vienna and Paris.  It took
him a while to absorb the new Modern influences, but he eventually
succeeded.  Stravinsky affected him, not so much in direct idiom, but
by his example of using folk sources to create something personal, rather
than derivative, no matter how polished.  Stravinsky seemed to allow
Szymanowski to reconcile his taste for the exotic with his nationalist
goals.  It often happens that few turn out more exotic than one's family.

Poland for a very long time was less a nation than a culture, held
together by language, art, and Catholicism.  The remaining three works,
despite their liturgical titles, are all original Polish poems -- the
Stabat Mater and Veni Creator free paraphrases of the Latin prayers. 
In 1918, Poland became a formally-independent country, and this sparked
even greater nationalist feeling among its writers, musicians, and
artists.  Szymanowski wrote his Veni Creator (1930) for the establishment
of the Warsaw Academy of Music, which he headed for two years.  Taking
his text from a poem by Stanislaw Wypianski (who also wrote the text of
Penthesilea), Szymanowski creates something official and gorgeous at the
same time.  It reminds me a bit of Elgar's occasional pieces or a royal
wedding procession.  Duty may hang over it, but it's still stunning.

I owned at one time or another six different performances of the
Stabat Mater (1926), one of the greatest works in the choral literature. 
I admit I've gone as gaga over it as others have over Mahler's Second.
Forty years ago, when I first heard it (live performance, incidentally),
it counted as a rarity outside Poland, and the only recordings were
Polish ones.  Now it belongs to the international repertory.  Shaw and
Rattle have recorded it, as have the Poles Wislocki, Stryja, and now
Wit.  Compared to most of the other works here, it's stripped-down and
intense.  It sings rapturously, brightly, painfully -- like the arrow
that pierced St.  Teresa's heart.  Every note of it tells.  Shaw and
Rattle do very well indeed, but I still seem to like Poles in this work.
To me, they get underneath the music more, even if the surface is rougher.
Wit has made two different recordings, and I prefer this one.  Litany
to the Virgin Mary (1933), a very late work (the composer died in 1937
of tuberculosis), is even more spare.  Frankly, I don't find much religious
fervor in either, rather a deep empathy with human suffering, a worship
of, if anything, the aesthetic beauty of endurance.  These two works
remind me of the medieval illuminated manuscripts -- simultaneously
opulent and stark, fanciful and direct.  Both of them sound like chorales
from a savage time.  They both have the inevitability of great music and
never lose the power to surprise.

I've always admired Antoni Wit.  He has a tough job with this program.
All the music is slow.  Yet with the exception of Penthesilea, he manages
to hold on to your interest.  The sound kind of flattens out at high
volume.  Naxos happens to compete directly with itself -- why, I have
no idea -- an older recording of exactly the same music on 8.553687 led
by Stryja.  As far as I'm concerned, both achieve comparable levels, for
the most part.  However, soprano soloist Iwona Hossa stands out here --
a glorious, sweet, powerful sound, even if her diction isn't all it
should be.  That tips me to the Wit rather than to the Stryja.

Steve Schwartz

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