About this Recording
8.557168 - 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 as both Stravinsky and Kodály, to an aristocratic Polish family in the Ukraine. He was the third of five children, all of whom pursued careers in the arts, and displayed a keen interest in both music and literature. Owing to a leg injury at the age of four his early education was at home, where, under his father’s direction, he began to study the piano from the age of seven. Later he was sent to his uncle Gustav Neuhaus’s music school to study both piano and theory. It was under his tutelage that Szymanowski 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 Zygmunt Noskowski in counterpoint and composition and from Marek Zawirski in harmony. It was here that he established friendships with a small group of remarkable musicians who were all to become important interpreters of his music, the pianist Artur Rubinstein, the violinist Pawel Kochaƒski, and the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg. Together with Fitelberg and two other students of Noskowski, Ludomir Ró. zycki and Apolinary Szeluto, Szymanowski established the group known as ‘M1oda Polska’ (Young Poland), in order to publish and promote new Polish music.

Besides the strong influence of his compatriot, Chopin, other key influences throughout Szymanowski’s early creative life included the music of Wagner, Strauss, Reger and Scriabin, as can be heard in works such as the Symphony No. 2 (1909-10) (Naxos 8.553683) and the one-act opera Hagith (1912-13). With the outbreak of World War I, Szymanowski returned home from travel abroad that had taken him to Italy, Sicily, Algiers, Constantine, Biskra and Tunis, concentrating his attention on composition. Having by now discovered the music of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, thereby freeing himself from the clutches of late German romanticism, he reached his creative maturity in a series of works written in 1915 that included Métopes for piano (Naxos 8.553016), Myths for violin and piano, and Songs of the Fairy Princess (8.553688) for coloratura soprano and piano. Until the shattering experience of the Russian Revolution, in which his family estate was destroyed, this was Szymanowski’s most fertile creative period. Other key works written around this time include the Third Symphony (1914-16) (8.553684), the First Violin Concerto (1916) (8.553685), the twelve Etudes (1916) and the First String Quartet (1917).

It was following a trip to Paris in 1921, when Szymanowski had the overwhelming experience of hearing Stravinsky play Les Noces at the piano (the two had met for the first time in London in 1914) that Szymanowski felt inspired to write a series of works drawing on the folk-music of the Tatra mountains in southern Poland. This third creative phase witnessed the creation of the one-act ballet Harnasie (1923-31) and the String Quartet No. 2 (1927) (Naxos 8.554315) among other works. Szymanowski died at a Lausanne sanatorium in 1937 at the age of 54, having succumbed to a tubercular infection.

Szymanowski’s Nine Preludes, Op. 1, contain what is thought to be his earliest surviving works. The seventh and eighth of the set were composed in 1896 when the composer was only fourteen. All nine of these vignettes are exquisitely crafted and possess an uncommon melodic beauty. Providing a suitably arresting centrepiece to the set as a whole, the figurations of the dramatic fifth prelude, marked Allegro molto, impetuoso, are particularly indebted to Chopin’s Etude in C minor, Op. 10, No. 10.

Composed between 1901 and 1903, the Variations in B flat minor, Op. 3, remain quite strongly bound to classical formal principles, with the variations generally adhering to the phrase structure of the theme. The variations are characterized by an incredible variety of mood and texture, from the hymnic simplicity of the eighth variation to the virtuosic perpetuum mobile of the concluding twelfth variation, and from the wistful mazurka of the third variation to the serene waltz of the ninth.

The twenty Mazurkas, Op. 50, were composed in Zakopane in 1924-25 and were published in five sets of four. The influence of the Góral folk-music of the Tatra mountains can be discerned throughout, characterized by sharpened fourths and flattened sevenths, melodic ornamentation, irregular phrase lengths, and the use of the so-called dudowa kwinta, a reiterated open fifth that recreates the drone effect of the dudy, the Polish bagpipes. In his book on the composer, B.M. Maciejewski remarks of this period that Szymanowski took great delight in listening “to the music, cries and noises, watching the happy dancers full of vigour, passions and sweat. Even the wooden floor and the wooden cottage danced together with the Górals”.

Szymanowski’s final return to the mazurka came at the end of his life. The Two Mazurkas, Op. 62, were composed in 1933-34 and were his last completed works. One of the very few extant recordings of Szymanowski is his performance in 1933 of the first of these mazurkas, a piece he was especially fond of. The première of the work took place in November 1934 at a private concert in London, at the home of the work’s dedicatee, Sir Victor Cazalet.

The delightful, if all too brief, Valse Romantique was composed in 1925 as a tribute to Emil Hertzka on the occasion of Universal Edition’s 25th anniversary (Hertzka was the publishing firm’s resolutely forwardlooking Managing Director from 1907 to 1932). Only discovered in 1967, its harmonic language offers perhaps the most overt display of Szymanowski’s Francophile sensibilities.

Szymanowski completed his Sonata No. 3, Op. 36, in 1917. His last major work for piano, it is cast in a single continuous movement while at the same time embracing the four conventional subdivisions of the orthodox sonata: a dynamic first movement notable for its elevation of the second subject to a position of thematic precedence, an elegiac slow movement in ternary form in which whole-tone harmonies predominate throughout, a short yet metrically adventurous scherzo and a dazzling and technically daunting fugal finale, at the climax of which the first movement’s second subject returns in seamless combination with the fugal subject.

Peter Quinn

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