SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Works, Vol. 2 (Gary Cole/ Martin Roscoe) (Naxos: 8.553300)
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Karol Szymanowski (1882 -1937)
Piano Music Vol. 2
Born of aristrocratic, cultured Polish parents, wealthy landowners in the Ukraine (Tymoszówka), Szymanowski learnt piano from the age of ten with Gustav Neuhaus (a relative by marriage, and the father of Heinrich Neuhaus, teacher of Gilels and Richter), finishing his studies in Warsaw (1901-04) under Zygmunt Noskowski (counterpoint and composition) and Marek Zawirski (harmony). The decade before the killing fields of the Great War silenced for ever the old imperial dynasties of his childhood was for him a time of enterprise, discovery and enlightenment. In Busoni's and Strauss's Berlin he co-founded the Young Polish Composers' Publishing Company (Moda Poiska, \Young Poland in Music"), with the purpose of introducing modern Polish music to new audiences. He was oppressed by the anti-Semitic fin-de-siècle Viennese milieu of Mahler and Schoenberg, Klimt and Freud, Hitler and Trotsky. But was lastingly affected by the exotic Islamic cultures and ornament of North Africa, and the Christendom of Italy and Sicily. He experienced Debussy' s Pelléas et Mélisande. He saw Nijinsky, Karsavina and the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, met Stravinsky ("a genius"), and with Artur Rubinstein played Petrushka on the piano. The War confined him to Russia - delving yet deeper into philosophy, the orient, Islam, the Greeks, the Romans, early Christianity. In the Boishevik autumn of 1917 the family manor at Tymosz6wka ("un palais enchante," his cousin, the poet Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz, remembered), including its art treasures - many inherited from a great uncle who'd been one of Napoleon's generals - was plundered and burnt to the ground. "Wantonly thrown into the lake", both Szymanowski's grand pianos perished as well. For two years the trauma turned him away from music - a suddenly frozen art, petrified in a time before. Together with Iwaskiewicz in Elisavetgrad (surrounded by "things that would have made me at least faint [previously] - such as corpses, the wounded, some frightful bandit gangs") he worked instead on a novel, Efebos (lost in the Warsaw conflagrations of 1939) - "about a beautiful Prince, beautiful Rome, beautiful [homosexual] love": "a solace and sweet remembrance of things past ...an assertion of the Omnipotent Beauty of life even in the midst of suffering". By the end of 1919, Communist Russia behind him, Prohibition America to come, he was back in Poland, declining an invitation from Cairo to become Director of the Warsaw Conservatoire in 1927 and Rector of the Music Academy three years later - from which latter post, however, burdened by administration and obstructed by warring factions and right-wing opposition to his radical reforms, he was pressured to resign in 1932. In contrast to his privileged, pampered youth, his last years were tragic. He composed scarcely at all. Scraping a means to provide for his family (including an aged, arthritic mother), he ventured to appear as an "ill paid" pianist in his own music - but without much success: just thirty concerts and "at homes" for the period 1933- 37. Hounded by creditors, unable to afford proper medical treatment (maybe because he continued to insist on retaining a housekeeper, valet and secretary - reminders of a "Grand" life-style long since past: "I must confess to not being the most modest of men"), he died in Lausanne on Easter Sunday 1937 - like his eider brother, Felix, from tuberculosis. He was fifty-four.
How terminal was his decline he himself identified in a desparate, suicidally suggestive, letter to his friend the pianist Jan Smeterlin in London (14th September 1934): "I am absolutely destitute ...Like a down and out whore I am capable of selling myself for any price ...My whole family relies on me for support ...if I do not work I become painfully short of breath. So I play the [hired] piano (practicing for concerts) and compose, etc ...Polish officialdom (the Government) repeatedly refuses to recognise me ... they care nothing for me here ...I could die without anyone lifting a finger. My funeral will be a different story. I am convinced it will be splendid [he was right]. People here love the funeral processions of great men. I see no reason why I should be silent about the scandalous conditions to which I am subjected. You can tell the world about it. I have tried everything I can ...I have reached a stage where one no longer reasons sanely; decisions are easily made, as above all else one needs rest ...this exhausting fight to exist ... explains my frightful lethargy. One can put up with this sort of thing for a certain time, but not indefinitely. One tires and one loses the urge to live ...an 505 from the very depths of distress" (© translation BM Maciejewski). In his memoirs, Composing Myself (1987), Andrzej Panufnik remembered him around this time, "living in a simple, rather gloomy villa on the edge of Zakopane [in the Tatra mountains] ...sparsely furnished with ...a black, upright piano ...he immediately burst into a tirade about his former colleagues at the Conservatoire: He angrily attacked them one after the other, using words such as 'brote', 'rascal', 'swine', 'pig'; even 'son of a whore' ...It was astonishing to hear such crude words pouring from the lips of Poland's greatest composer ...Obviously he had been badly hurt by his colleagues and wanted me to know w hat he thought of them, perhaps in the hope that I would spread some words in his defence. All the time he was talking, he chain-smoked, carefully placing his cigarettes in a slim holder. His flow of words was interrupted only by his frequent, racking, tubercular cough ...We left the villa together, but soon our ways parted. I turned my head and sadly watched his efforts to make his way to the town. Though not much more than fifty, he appeared at least twenty years older; with his shoulders bent, he limped along slowly with the aid of a walking stick, one leg dragging behind him ..." Contrast this with Muriel Draper's portrait of him twenty years earlier in London, June 1914 - a man feted by society, unbroken, unravaged by bitterness: " Aloof, sensitive, secure, shy, he walked into the room and lifted a beautiful head from retreating hovering shoulders. Features of nobility were brushed with gentle strokes of silvery-gold sadness. Generations of Polish submission looked out from fathomless eyes, and generations of Polish rebellion moulded his forehead. Mobile lips shaped words into subtly chiselled silver images as he spoke. He brought with him the world of ecstatic suspense in which he lives and creates ...[Musicians] made much of him, though he made nothing of himself. He simply was" (Music at Midnight, 1929).
Between Chopin (died 1849) and Lutoshwski (born 1913) there was no musical mind in Poland so refined as Szymanowski's. He was to 20th century Polish music what Bartók was to Hungarian or Janacek to Czech, his art transcending/ denouncing its early Teutonic allegiances - Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Richard Strauss, Mahler - to achieve a broader synthesis sculpted as much out of Chopin and Debussy, theosophical Scriabin and "Russian spring" Stravinsky, as years of philosophical musing, moral questioning, and a very particular identification with the Polish psyche ("not the stiffened ghost of the polonaise or mazurka...[but] the solitary, joyful, carefree song of the nightingale in a fragrant May night"). "I recognise artistic traditionalism most sincerely as the starting- point," he wrote in February 1927, "yet our aim is not 'yesterday', but 'today' and 'tomorrow'. In other words, creativeness and not confinement to achievements already acquired". The Italian critic Guido Pannain (1932) sensed him to be "a genius of the Arabian Nights order. There is a touch of Cagliostro