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CLASSICAL  April 2010

CLASSICAL April 2010

Subject:

Szymanowski - Music for the Stage

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Tue, 6 Apr 2010 16:12:24 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Karol Szymanowski

*  Harnasie, op. 55 (1923-31)
*  Mandragora, op. 43 (1920)
*  Kniaz Patiomkin (Prince Potemkin), op. 51 (1925)

Wieslaw Ochman, tenor
Alexander Pinderak, tenor
Ewa Marciniec mezzo
Ewa Marczyk violin
Kazimierz Koslacz cello
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Antoni Wit
Naxos 8.570723  Total time: 73:17

Summary for the Busy Executive: Polish polish.

Always a good composer, Karol Szymanowski became a great one in the
Twenties, once he had thrown off the traces of post-Wagnerianism and
Impressionism and forged Polish folklore into a Modern music.  In many
ways, his music suffered because he lived in Poland, at the time a musical
backwater whose taste ran to third-rate followers of Chopin.  The Polish
critical establishment considered even early Debussy unacceptable.
Szymanowski's tours away from the country to places like Paris (as a
young man, he was a virtuoso pianist) brought Debussy and beyond into
his ken.  Indeed, during his lifetime, his music scored far greater
successes outside Poland than within it.

I find it hard to judge the music for the Micinski play Prince Potemkin.
It's actually incidental music for the fifth act and, as such, tied to
stage action.  The liner notes, unfortunately, don't give us any of the
situation for which Szymanowski intended the music.  Formally, it's a
little loose (a narrative like many film cues, actually), but one hears
gorgeous stretches, particularly toward the end, when a chorus and solo
mezzo enter with what sounds like a funeral song.

Mandragora, like Richard Strauss's Ariadne, was intended as an
entertainment within the Moliere play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. 
Instead of music for the classical play, Szymanowski provided a commedia
dell' arte ballet in three scenes.  Mandragora is the fruit of Szymanowski's
dissatisfaction with his previous idioms and view of art.  He had dedicated
himself to pure beauty -- "art for art's sake" -- tied to nothing but
itself.  After all, even the great musical Impressionists, also concerned
with ravishing beauty, had a moral or philosophic vision.  It wasn't
beauty for its own sake.  It consisted of an almost preternatural
absorption of the details of the real world, to achieve a union with
nature or even the super-natural.  Whereas Debussy's Prelude to the
Afternoon of a Faun makes you feel the summer heat, things like Szymanowski's
Third Symphony and Love Songs of Hafiz almost always comes across to me
as disembodied exotica, an attitude struck rather than deeply felt.
Mandragora, despite its somewhat arty basis, clears away a lot of the
purple weeds encrusted on Szymanowski's older style.  The music is leaner,
cleaner, and I think even the more beautiful for it.  One also perceives
a wider range of expression.  Szymanowski allows humor (as opposed to
whimsy) into his music, previously notable only through its absence.
One finds satirical allusions (as well as straight borrowings) from
Stravinsky's Firebird and Petrushka.  Toward the end of the first scene,
Szymanowski breaks into Neapolitan song, complete with a send-up of an
Italian tenor.  The funny thing is, it's an extremely good song of its
type.  One senses affection in the satire.  The second scene contains
short goodbye kisses to Wagner (Tristan) and Debussy (Prelude to the
Afternoon, etc.) and moves on to the unusual: Italian dances with a
decidedly Polish accent and unusual orchestral voicings, which carry
over to the third scene.  I believe Szymanowski, always a Polish
nationalist, has begun to feel his roots.

Harnasie is the great national Polish ballet and stakes a major claim
for the composer as a giant of musical Modernism.  No company in Poland
staged it during Szymanowski's lifetime.  The composer has begun to
absorb Stravinsky's example into his bones.  The Russian's ritualism,
as much as anything else, finds an echo chord within Szymanowski, and
this becomes a dominant feature of Szymanowski's music from then on.
Even with the striking change in Szymanowski's idiom exemplified by
Mandragora, Harnasie's music comes as a shock -- raw, powerful stuff.
The story concerns a gang of mountain robbers, the Harnasie, who carry
off, like Lochinvar, a would-be bride from her wedding.  The music evokes
the Tatra mountains and the wild.  It affords Szymanowski the opportunity
to write great shouting choruses, to beat drums and bells, and to
temporarily rest in the static world of ancient folklore, represented
by the repetitive line of shepherds' songs and the unvarying refrains
of folk poetry, to channel the primitive, paradoxically, in music of
great sophistication and craft.

Antoni Wit deserves a much wider career than he's had so far.  I've
never heard a bad performance from him and have encountered quite a few
excellent ones.  I think his Harnasie better than Rattle's, which was
wonderful.  But Wit has a better overall grasp of the score.  It's not
just bright colors or momentary jolts.  He makes you comprehend the work
in its entirety.  His account of Mandragora is simply the best I've
heard, and he makes as much of the Patiomkin music as possible, achieving
a strongly cohesive reading the further he goes along.  By the end, you
undergo a huge catharsis.  As I've implied, you can't predict this from
the score alone.  The two tenors are operatic tenors and hence fairly
crude singers, although Pinderak sings more flexibly and intelligently
than Ochman, who (naturally) has the bigger career.  Mezzo Ewa Marciniec
shoots them both out of the water in her sorrow-laden contribution to
Patiomkin.  The Warsaw Philharmonic respond beautifully and seem to revel
in the odd sounds Szymanowski gives them in Mandragora and Harnasie.
But they also sing with genuine tragedy in Patiomkin.  Yet another superb
CD from Naxos, and for cheap, yet.

Steve Schwartz

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