Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Concert Overture (1913)
Symphony No. 2 (1910)
Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin (1918-34) *
Wordsong (1928) *
Zofia Kilanowicz (sop)
London PO/Leon Botstein
rec Walthamstow Town Hall, London 15-18 Feb 2000.
The signs of recovery are promising for the music of Szymanowski.
Simon Rattle championed his music with the CBSO (an orchestra that has found
a worthy successor in Oramo Sakari) from 1980 onwards and followed this up
shortly before his departure to Berlin with a complete Krol Roger on
EMI. There have been various recordings, the most prestigious of which was
the superb EMI-LP boxed set issued in 1982 (centenary year).The conducting
duties for these discs were apportioned between Jerzy Semkow and Jacek Kaprzyk.
These recordings have re-emerged on various EMI Matrix discs and the whole
sequence is surely a 'natural' for reissue in a twofer or threefer. Dorati's
recordings of the second and third symphonies are available on a 'Double
Decca'. Marco Polo issued a 'complete' orchestral series from Katowice conducted
by Karol Strjya. That said Szymanowski is still a 'rara avis' in the concert
Leon Botstein, a pupil of violinist Roman Totenberg (do remember his recording
of the Bloch violin concerto on Vanguard) who has his own connections with
the performance of Szymanowski, is no stranger to 'peripheral' repertoire.
He has previously recorded, for Telarc, Hartmann's symphonies 1 and 6 (CD80528)
and Dohnanyi 1 (CD80511).
To the music
The Concert Overture was one of my earliest Szymanowski experiences.
I heard it in a toweringly orgasmic performance conducted by Simon Rattle.
It is an early piece of high-flown Straussian excess. This trend came to
a head in the Salome-influenced opera Hagith and the similarly
over-the-top Second Symphony. Under Kasprzyk on CDM 5 65082 2 the overture
thundered and glowed in a recording that was just as good at the triple
forte climaxes as the silvery pianissimos. Don Juan was surely
a life-spring for the work and if you fall for this then do try Enescu's
First Symphony which has the same towering exuberance (best heard in the
rarely encountered version conducted by Rozhdestvensky with the Moscow RSO).
I was surprised to find that the Telarc sound is harder and far less immediate
and subtle than the late analogue EMI. Against that the EMI tended to zoom
in during quieter and solo passages. The Telarc is more naturalistic in
perspective. The LPO seem ill at ease in this music and the flow and ebb
which is at the crux of Szymanowski is lacking. EMI timing: 13.14; Telarc
The Second Symphony is from six years after the overture with which it has
much in common though it is seen in better context amid the works of Czeslaw
Marek, Zemlinsky and Schreker particularly the operas Traumgörge
and Der Ferne Klang. Kasprzyk on EMI Matrix is very sensitive:
Botstein has a hurdle or two to clear. The illusion (for let us remember
that we are in that business) is more elegant, capricious and fantastic
in the EMI (at mid-price if you can find it) than in the full price Telarc.
Dorati on Decca (448 258-2) is also good and his is an even more judiciously
balanced recording with the crucial solo violin floating easily into and
out of the most damask of Hollywood and Firebird textures (but then
he has the Detroit Symphony at his beck and call). Stryja's Katowiceans are
recorded in a reverberant acoustic which is good for the many quietly woven
moments but which smears focus when rising to forte. Pretty good for a 1989
Timings for the Second Symphony are Stryja: 34.15; Kasprzyk: 37.21; Dorati:
29.15; Botstein: 31.50. (timings from CD listings so not necessarily the
Szymanowski's orchestral songs are a delight and to hear him in 'Richard
Burton' (the swashbuckling nineteenth century translator of 'The Arabian
Nights') territory magnifies the pleasure. As in the exotic Krol Roger
(in which Zilanowicz has sung) with its Mediterranean and Oriental ambience
so here. The orchestra creates a pointillistic wash through and over which
the soprano weaves, slides and rises. Ravel, Delage, Biarent, Rimsky and,
latterly, Peggy Glanville-Hicks have all written similarly. Kilanowicz is
gloriously secure of voice and creamily vanilla of texture. Her way with
melisma is not to be missed. Iwaskiewicz's exotic erotic poetry is well served
by Szymanowski. A tenor, Rysziard Minkiewicz, takes the solo in the Marco
Polo version. Given the title, a man's voice is more suitable but Kilanowicz
is such a superb singer and spins her magic with such amorous elegance that
despite the excellent Marco Polo ambience hers is the preferred version.
There is at least one other version of the songs on Koch-Schwann with Stefania
Woytowicz. I have not heard it but Woytowicz is a practised hand in Szymanowski
and should not be underestimated or forgotten. I would (as ever) be interested
in hearing the views of other listeners.
Lastly we come to the Slopiewnie (Wordsong) song cycle in which
Kilanowicz is magnificent in so much high-lying rhapsodising. The locale
is Poland and its mystical past. The serenity of the St Francis song (Number
3 of 5) is wonderfully caught. This is something special and if you are reminded
of the orchestral song cycles of Czeslaw Marek, of Sibelius's Luonnotar
and of Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne you will not feel cheated.
The notes speak of the influence of Stravinsky on Szymanowski. 'Guilty as
charged' in the slow descending woodwind theme at the start of the fifth
Telarc refuse to spoil the ship by short changing on notes. These are by
Jim Sansom of Exeter University whose Kahn and Averill book on Szymanowski
is well worth your attention. He has been a promoter of Szymanowski's music
since the 1960s long before there was any cachet in his name.
Finally this is a tough decision. The overture and symphony on Telarc do
not shape up well against the competition but the songs are essential listening.