have done more to bring Szymanowski’s music into the popular
mainstream than Simon Rattle, the CBSO and EMI Classics. Rattle’s
approach has been to immerse himself in the composer’s work
completely, to capture the composer’s visionary sound world
on a deep intuitive level. Rattle’s feel for Szymanowski is
so personal and so individual that whatever he has to express
in the music is worth listening to. Indeed, there’s hardly any
serious competition, despite the best efforts of companies that
record cover versions. Rattle and EMI created the audience for
this music in the first place.
years ago I happened on a television documentary about Szymanowski.
Until then just an obscure name to me, a composer associated
with virtuoso piano pieces, deprecatingly compared to Chopin.
The documentary made a case for the composer on a much grander
scale, with a complex individual personality of his own. Szymanowski’s
roots were in a pre-First World War eastern Europe that no longer
exists after decades of partition, war and ethnic upheaval.
Perhaps it is the sense of inexplicable nostalgia that makes
his music interesting. Or perhaps in the twenty-first century,
we can identify with a cosmopolitan individual who acknowledged
his roots and yet was truly “European” in the widest sense.
themes have long been a long tradition in European thought:
Goethe’s West-ostlicherstlicher Divan explored “Persian”
poetry, a genre later taken up enthusiastically by poets like
Heyse and Bethge. The French, who had a bigger empire than the
Germans, also became fascinated. Japanese art, for example,
influenced the Impressionists. Musicians like Debussy, Delage
and Ravel absorbed alien idioms into music. Perhaps they gave
a European artist freedom to experiment beyond conventional
spent the first months of 1914 travelling – Tunis, Algeria and
Constantinople, the returning to Paris to hear Debussy. Weeks
after, war broke out, and he returned to his country estate
at Tymoszowka, in the Polish part of the Ukraine. The Hafiz songs, to poems
by Hans Bethge, are still redolent of an elegant fin de sičcle romanticism.
The voice part is decorated with trills and melisma. Katarina
Karnéus sings effortlessly, her legato beautifully extended
to capture the mood of sensuous refinement. It seems, as the
text says “as perfumed as a rose garden”. There are some wonderful
effects, like the complex background to Hafiz’s Grave,
where half-tones seem to shimmer and dance, perhaps like light
playing on water, a classic Persian image of paradise. Passages
for solo violin and flute add to the air of nostalgia for what
is, ultimately, only an illusion. Shortly after writing these
songs, Szymanowski wrote his Third Symphony, for orchestra,
chorus and solo voice, set to words by a 13th century
Persian poet. From this fertile period also came masterpieces
like Krol Roger, perhaps the composer’s best known work.
The recording, by Rattle, with Hampson in the lead role is outstanding.
There’s of course a later cover version on Naxos, but the Rattle
version is more compelling.
interesting to listen to the Songs of a Fairytale Princess
in this context. The original piano and voice pieces were written
in 1915, but the composer picked three of them to orchestrate
towards the end of his composing life, as if he were bringing
his early work up to date. The orchestrations add a lot, expanding
the songs into miniature symphonies.
and flute solos add a mysterious and atmospheric touch, framing
the coloratura vocalise. Sobotka is relatively young but she
is perfectly at ease negotiating the composer’s tricky turns
of phrase and intonation. Her pure, clean tones elide the trills
and melisma with elegant grace. When she sings lines like “mi
go zal” (ist mir so leid) , unaccompanied and alone, she
breathes an earthy personality into the words, enhancing their
meaning, even if you don’t understand a word of Polish. She
has recorded the complete Szymanowski songs with the superlative
young tenor, Piotr Beczala and others, so she, too, has a claim
to being immersed in the composer’s idiom. Indeed, in the second
song, Slowik (Nightingale), she creates a truly mysterious
atmosphere, turning the elaborate vocalise into an almost abstract
centre-piece of this recording, however is the ballet Harnasie
op 55. Ballet music creates constraints in that a composer has
to write to illustrate whatever will be happening on stage.
Szymanowski creates the “scenery” with quite distinctly atmospheric
music, evoking in sound images which might describe the wild
mountain fastnesses of the Tatras. Certainly you can hear whips
cracking and horses prancing, if you’re so inclined.
music is supposed to illustrate, after all. When the choir appears,
it’s like an explosion, so striking is the scoring. There are
sections here which seem to glow with colour, even without the
visual element of ballet. Rattle plays these up for all they are
worth, for they are meant to be dramatic and uncompromising. The
burst of cymbals that heralds the kidnap is all the more striking
for being followed by spare, minimal writing. Then the voice of
the tenor, Timothy Robinson, rises out in the distance, as if
he were singing from the mountain top.