SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Works, Vol. 1 (Gary Cole/ Martin Roscoe) (Naxos: 8.553016)
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Karol Szymanowski (1882 - 1937)
Mazurkas, Op. 50, Nos. 1- 4
Metopes, Op. 29
Etudes, Op. 4, Nos. 1- 4
Sonata No.2, Op. 21
Karol Szymanowski was born at Tymoszowka in the Kiev Districtof the Ukraine in 1882, the son of a Polish land-owner and of a mother of Swedishextraction, born Baroness Anna Taube. The family and their immediate circle had a deepinterest in the arts, a fact reflected in the subsequent careers of the five children ofthe marriage as musicians, poets or painters. His sister Stanislava later became a singerand his brother Feliks a pianist. Szymanowski's early education was at home, since a leginjury at the age of four prevented him from attending school in the neighbouring town ofElisavetgrad (the modern Kirovograd), where, nevertheless, he had music lessons from arelative, Gustav Neuhaus, who had a school there. In 1901 he went to Warsaw to continuehis musical studies, taking lessons from the composer Zygmunt Noskowski in counterpointand composition and from Marek Zawirski in harmony.
The feelings of Polish nationalism that had inspired Chopin andhis contemporaries continued through the nineteenth century, exacerbated by the repressivemeasures taken by Russia, in particular, in the face of open revolt. Warsaw in 1901,however, remained as provincial as it had been in the time of Chopin, who had sought hismusical fortune abroad in Paris in 1830. The century had seen Polish performers of thegreatest distinction, particularly the violinists Lipinski and Wienawski. The operacomposer Stanislaw Moniuszko, however, a rival to Chopin in his own country, enjoyed onlya local reputation, while his successors, in Szymanowski's esteem, occupied a still lowerplace. Polish music was to a great extent isolated and provincial, a reflection of thesociety in which it existed. The new century, however, brought together a group of youngmusicians of much wider outlook, a circle that included the pianist Artur Rubinstein, theviolinist Pawel Kochanski and the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg. The last named, thecomposer Ludomir Rozycki and the pianist and composer Apolinary Szeluto, together withSzymanowski, established, under the patronage of Prince Wladyslaw Lubomirski, the YoungPoland in Music group, for the publication and promotion of new Polish music. Fitelberg,by training a violinist and composer, made his later career as a conductor, and directedthe first concert of the group in Warsaw in 1906, when Szymanowski's Concert Overture
was performed. He won later distinction as conductor at the Vienna Staatsoper and in workfor the Russian impresario Dyagilev, before returning to direct the Warsaw PhilharmonicOrchestra and, from 1947, the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. Kochanski'ssupport was to prove invaluable, particularly in the composition of the first ofSzymanowski's two violin concertos and in a number of works written for violin and piano.
Rubinstein, who, like Kochanski, made his later career in the United States of America,proved an additional champion of Szymanowski, while Paderewski, a musician of moreconservative tendency, assisted in the wider dissemination of Szymanowski's piano music,favouring especially the famous B flat minor Study, a work that owes much of itspopularity to his advocacy.
The first Young Poland concert in Warsaw had includedperformances of Szymanowski's Variations on a Polish Folk Theme and his Study in B flat minor,played by the pianist Harry Neuhaus, and had been well enough received. Berlin, however,proved much less interested, when Fitelberg conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra ina similar programme in the same year. Szymanowski spent the following two yearsprincipally in Berlin and Leipzig, absorbing still further the influence of Wagner, ofReger and of Richard Strauss, composers of whom he later took a cooler view. This periodsaw the composition of his Symphony No.1 in F minor, completed in 1907 and givenits first performance in Warsaw two years later. The composer subsequently withdrew thesymphony and went so far as to destroy the 1907 Piano Trio, sensing what seemed to him theexcessive influence of the post-Wagnerian, a reflection of a predominant aspect of musicof the time in Germany. The following years brought periods at home in the Ukraine andabroad. He wrote his Penthesilea,Opus 18, an orchestral work with soprano solo derived from the Achilleis ofthe contemporary Polish painter and dramatist Stanislaw Wyspianski, in Italy in 1908, andin 1910 completed a very different Symphony No.2 in B flat, Opus 19, awork in which the influence of Scriabin is noticeable, as it is in the piano music of thisperiod. The new symphony, played under Fitelberg in Warsaw in 1911, proved unacceptable toboth audience and critics, but won acclaim in Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna, establishing theinternational importance of the composer. Szymanowski determined, after this experience,to live, at least for a time, in Vienna, where Fitelberg was now employed at theStaatsoper, and where he reached an agreement with Universal to publish his work.
Vienna, however, proved less stimulating than Szymanowski hadhoped, but the period changed to some extent his musical outlook, particularly through hisexperience of the music of Debussy and, still more, of Ravel, and of the Dyagilev companyin Stravinsky's Firebird
In March 1914 he left Vienna and travelled south to Italy, Sicily and North Africa,returning through Rome, Paris and London, where he met Stravinsky. The war years he spentin musical isolation at home at Tymoszowka, turning his attention to a study of Greekcivilisation and literature, to the early history of Christianity and to the culture ofIslam, the last an extension of an interest aroused by translations of the poems of Hafizby Hans Bethge, poet of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, some of which he had set tomusic in 1911, and exemplified in the remarkable Symphony No.3, completed in 1916, using poems bythe 13th century Persian mystic and poet Mevl?óna, Jalal al-Din ar-Rumi.
The Russian revolution put an end to Szymanowski's period ofwar-time seclusion. The family was compelled to move, for reasons of safety, toElisavetgrad, and the property at Tymoszowka was destroyed by the revolutionaries. In1919 they moved to Poland, after the proclamation of the new republic. Kochanski andRubinstein prudently chose to settle in the United States, but Szymanowski determined tostay in his own country and to seek there a further source of inspiration, particularly inthe more primitive aspects of indigenous music. His reputation grew at home and abroad,and in 1927 he rejected the offer of a position as director of the conservatory in Cairoin favour of the financially less rewarding position of director of the WarsawConservatory, which in 1930 became the Warsaw Academy of Music, an institution of which heremained rector until his resignation in 1932.
The five years that Szymanowski spent at the Conservatory andthe Academy brought many frustrations, particularly in dealing with musicians of aconservative turn of mind, and these difficulties finally led to his resignation. Theremaining years of his life were not easy, without any regular source of income, and hetherefore made more public appearances as a performer, writing the piano part of his Symphony No.4
in 1932 to suit his own relatively modest piano technique, no longer adequate for the moretaxing compositions of his earlier career. In the same year he was greatly encouraged bythe performance in Prague of his opera Kin