About this Recording
8.554315 - SZYMANOWSKI: String Quartets / STRAVINSKY: Concertino

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Music for String Quartet

Karol Szymanowski was born in 1882 to an aristocratic Polish family in the Ukraine. Owing to a leg injury at the age of four his early education was at home, where he began to study the piano under his father's direction. Later he was sent to his uncle Gustav Neuhaus's music school to study both piano and theory, and under Neuhaus's tutelage was introduced to the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and, naturally, Chopin. His first published work was a set of nine Chopinesque Preludes, written between 1896 and 1900, although not published until 1906. In 1901 he moved to Warsaw for further study, taking lessons from both Zygmunt Noskowski (counterpoint and composition) and Marek Zawirski (harmony). Together with Fitelberg and with two other students of Noskowski (Ludomir Rózycki and Apolinary Szeluto), Szymanowski established the group known as 'Young Poland in Music', in order to publish and promote new Polish music.

Early influences included the music of his compatriot, Chopin, and other composers such as Wagner, Strauss, Reger and Scriabin. Szymanowski reached his creative maturity in a series of works written in 1915 that included Métopes for piano, Myths for violin and piano, and Songs of the Fairy Princess for coloratura soprano and piano, works which reflect his new interest in Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Hearing the latter's Les Noces during a trip to Paris in 1921 inspired him to write a series of works drawing on the folk-music of the Tatra mountains in southern Poland, thus instigating a third creative phase. Szymanowski died at a Lausanne sanatorium in 1937 at the age of 54, having succumbed to a tubercular infection.

The two string quartets make up the sum total of Szymanowski's contribution to the chamber music repertoire. The String Quartet No. 1 (1917) received its first performance in Warsaw in March 1924. A transitional work, it moves away from impressionistic effects and seems to anticipate the forthcoming discovery of folksong. The opening Lento assai is cast in sonata form, whilst the bipartite slow movement, as its subtitle in moda d'una canzona suggests, possesses a rare melodic beauty. The last movement is a scherzo (a projected fourth movement was never written), a fugal sonata allegro in which each instrumental part is written in a different key, rising in minor thirds: C-E flat – F sharp-A.

Strong Tatra folk music elements are to be found in the String Quartet No. 2 (1927), although the first movement seems to seek a rapprochement with the harmonic world of his impressionist period. The ostinato accompaniments and rhythmic energy of the second movement clearly show an acquaintance with the music of Bartók, whilst the slow fugal finale employs a folk-melody as its main subject and incorporates other Tatra melodies heard also in the one-act ballet, Harnasie (1923-31).

The Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was the son of the principal bass at the Imperial Opera, St Petersburg, and studied under Rimsky-Korsakov. Hugely influential in the development of twentieth century music (particularly in its innovative approach to both form and rhythm) Stravinsky's most celebrated work The Rite of Spring features highly complex syncopations and rapid changes of metre, whilst the concept of development is abandoned in favour of juxtaposing contrasting blocks of material. Throughout his career, Stravinsky was able to borrow from different musical styles (including medieval, Baroque, Classical, as well as folk-music) and completely transform them into his own highly distinctive musical language. He first made his name with The Firebird (1909-10), written for Dyagilev's Ballets Russes in Paris. A huge success, it was followed by Petrushka (1910-11) and the aforementioned The Rite of Spring (1913). In the wake of the Russian Revolution, during which his property was confiscated, Stravinsky wrote The Soldier's Tale (1918) for a small touring theatre company, combining his dual interest in Russian folk-music and jazz. Another ballet score written for Dyagilev, Pulcinella (1919-20), saw the beginning of his neo-classical period in which major works such as the Violin Concerto (1931), the Symphony in C (1938-40) and the opera The Rake's Progress (1948-51) were composed. Having settled in the USA in 1939, he became interested in serialism (especially the music of Webern) through the advocacy of the American conductor Robert Craft, an interest that was reflected in later works such as Canticum Sacrum (1955), Threni (1957-8) and the ballet Agon (1953-7). Stravinsky died in New York in 1971 and was buried in Venice, near to his erstwhile colleague, Dyagilev.

Both the Concertino (1920) and the Three Pieces (1914) were written for the use of the Flonzaley Quartet, a group of Vaudois musicians, with both pieces forming the basis of a ballet entitled The Antagonists produced by the American Dance Festival at New London, Connecticut, in 1955. The Concertino, first performed by the Quartet in New York on 3rd November 1920, is cast in a single movement. The form is a free sonata allegro with a concertante part for the first violin. The first performance of the Three Pieces, in which Stravinsky continued to explore the discoveries he had made in The Rite of Spring (1913), was given by the Quartet in Chicago on 8th November 1915. They represent three contrasting moods and, when they were included in his Four Studies for Orchestra, were given the titles 'Dance', 'Eccentric' and 'Canticle'. The melodic line of 'Dance' is confined to a mere four notes within the compass of a fourth, whilst the jerky movements of 'Eccentric' were inspired by the clown Little Tich, whom Stravinsky saw in London in the summer of 1914. Of the concluding 'Canticle', which is entirely homophonic, the composer wrote in Expositions and Developments that 'the last twenty bars…are some of my best music of that time.' Stravinsky had adopted serialism by the time of the tiny Double Canon 'Raoul Dufy in Memoriam' (1959), the first canon of which is between first and second violin, the second between viola and cello. Like the Concertino, it also received its première in New York, on 20th December 1959.

Peter Quinn

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