SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Works, Vol. 4
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Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Piano Works, Volume 4
Karol Szymanowski was born in 1882, the same year asboth Stravinsky and Kodaly, to an aristocratic Polishfamily in the Ukraine. He was the third of five children,all of whom pursued careers in the arts, and displayed akeen interest in both music and literature. Owing to a leginjury at the age of four his early education was at home,where, under his father's direction, he began to study thepiano from the age of seven. Later he was sent to hisuncle Gustav Neuhaus's music school to study bothpiano and theory. It was under his tutelage thatSzymanowski was introduced to the works of Bach,Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and, naturally, Chopin. Hisfirst published work was a set of nine ChopinesquePreludes, written between 1896 and 1900, although notpublished until 1906. In 1901 he moved to Warsaw forfurther study, taking lessons from Zygmunt Noskowskiin counterpoint and composition and from MarekZawirski in harmony. It was here that he establishedfriendships with a small group of remarkable musicianswho were all to become important interpreters of hismusic, the pianist Artur Rubinstein, the violinist PawelKochafski, and the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg.
Together with Fitelberg and two other students ofNoskowski, Ludomir Ro. zycki and Apolinary Szeluto,Szymanowski established the group known as 'M1odaPolska' (Young Poland), in order to publish and promotenew Polish music.
Besides the strong influence of his compatriot,Chopin, other key influences throughoutSzymanowski's early creative life included the music ofWagner, Strauss, Reger and Scriabin, as can be heard inworks such as the Symphony No. 2 (1909-10) (Naxos8.553683) and the one-act opera Hagith (1912-13). Withthe outbreak of World War I, Szymanowski returnedhome from travel abroad that had taken him to Italy,Sicily, Algiers, Constantine, Biskra and Tunis,concentrating his attention on composition. Having bynow discovered the music of Debussy, Ravel andStravinsky, thereby freeing himself from the clutches oflate German romanticism, he reached his creativematurity in a series of works written in 1915 thatincluded Metopes for piano (Naxos 8.553016), Mythsfor violin and piano, and Songs of the Fairy Princess(8.553688) for coloratura soprano and piano. Until theshattering experience of the Russian Revolution, inwhich his family estate was destroyed, this wasSzymanowski's most fertile creative period. Other keyworks written around this time include the ThirdSymphony (1914-16) (8.553684), the First ViolinConcerto (1916) (8.553685), the twelve Etudes (1916)and the First String Quartet (1917).
It was following a trip to Paris in 1921, whenSzymanowski had the overwhelming experience ofhearing Stravinsky play Les Noces at the piano (the twohad met for the first time in London in 1914) thatSzymanowski felt inspired to write a series of worksdrawing on the folk-music of the Tatra mountains insouthern Poland. This third creative phase witnessed thecreation of the one-act ballet Harnasie (1923-31) andthe String Quartet No. 2 (1927) (Naxos 8.554315)among other works. Szymanowski died at a Lausannesanatorium in 1937 at the age of 54, having succumbedto a tubercular infection.
Szymanowski's Nine Preludes, Op. 1, contain whatis thought to be his earliest surviving works. The seventhand eighth of the set were composed in 1896 when thecomposer was only fourteen. All nine of these vignettesare exquisitely crafted and possess an uncommonmelodic beauty. Providing a suitably arrestingcentrepiece to the set as a whole, the figurations of thedramatic fifth prelude, marked Allegro molto,impetuoso, are particularly indebted to Chopin's Etudein C minor, Op. 10, No. 10.
Composed between 1901 and 1903, the Variationsin B flat minor, Op. 3, remain quite strongly bound toclassical formal principles, with the variations generallyadhering to the phrase structure of the theme. Thevariations are characterized by an incredible variety ofmood and texture, from the hymnic simplicity of theeighth variation to the virtuosic perpetuum mobile of theconcluding twelfth variation, and from the wistfulmazurka of the third variation to the serene waltz of theninth.
The twenty Mazurkas, Op. 50, were composed inZakopane in 1924-25 and were published in five sets offour. The influence of the Goral folk-music of the Tatramountains can be discerned throughout, characterizedby sharpened fourths and flattened sevenths, melodicornamentation, irregular phrase lengths, and the use ofthe so-called dudowa kwinta, a reiterated open fifth thatrecreates the drone effect of the dudy, the Polishbagpipes. In his book on the composer, B.M.
Maciejewski remarks of this period that Szymanowskitook great delight in listening \to the music, cries andnoises, watching the happy dancers full of vigour,passions and sweat. Even the wooden floor and thewooden cottage danced together with the Gorals".
Szymanowski's final return to the mazurka came atthe end of his life. The Two Mazurkas, Op. 62, werecomposed in 1933-34 and were his last completedworks. One of the very few extant recordings ofSzymanowski is his performance in 1933 of the first ofthese mazurkas, a piece he was especially fond of. Thepremi?¿re of the work took place in November 1934 at aprivate concert in London, at the home of the work'sdedicatee, Sir Victor Cazalet.
The delightful, if all too brief, Valse Romantiquewas composed in 1925 as a tribute to Emil Hertzka onthe occasion of Universal Edition's 25th anniversary(Hertzka was the publishing firm's resolutely forwardlookingManaging Director from 1907 to 1932). Onlydiscovered in 1967, its harmonic language offersperhaps the most overt display of Szymanowski'sFrancophile sensibilities.
Szymanowski completed his Sonata No. 3, Op. 36,in 1917. His last major work for piano, it is cast in asingle continuous movement while at the same timeembracing the four conventional subdivisions of theorthodox sonata: a dynamic first movement notable forits elevation of the second subject to a position ofthematic precedence, an elegiac slow movement internary form in which whole-tone harmoniespredominate throughout, a short yet metricallyadventurous scherzo and a dazzling and technicallydaunting fugal finale, at the climax of which the firstmovement's second subject returns in seamlesscombination with the fugal subject.Peter Quinn