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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1910) [34:38]
Symphony No. 3, Op. 27, ‘Pieśń o nocy’ (Song of the Night) (1916) [26:10]
Ewa Marczyk (violin solo) (2)
Ryszard Minkiewicz (tenor) (3)
Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir/Henryk Wojnarowski (3)
Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. 16-19 April 2007, Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw.
Polish texts and English translation provided
NAXOS 8.570721 [60:48]
Experience Classicsonline

Antoni Wit must be a very busy man indeed if his steady stream of recordings is anything to go by. His Penderecki Te Deum (see review) and Mahler 8 (Naxos 8.550533-34 - see review) are among his most memorable outings so far, but how does he fare with these Szymanowski symphonies?
The Second Symphony was not well received at its Warsaw premiere in 1911 but audiences in Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna took to it straightaway. According to the composer it consists of an Allegro moderato ‘in a grand manner’, a theme and nine variations and an ‘adagio and finale with a fugue’. First impressions are that this music is heavily influenced by Richard Strauss. Indeed the opening movement has all the creaminess of Rosenkavalier and the sweep of Ein Alpensinfonie, the spell only broken by the first entry of the boxy timps at 1:59. Those surging string tunes are pure Strauss, the Warsaw players giving them plenty of body and brilliance.
On the whole the band is well recorded in sound of boldness and breadth. Wit keeps the musicians on course, although even he can’t redeem the less inspired patches. In particular those Scriabinesque passages are not so much creamy as clotted. That said the final half minute of the first movement has an inner glow that is most appealing.
The start of the Lento, lovingly phrased, is infused with that same Straussian warmth. The Scherzo is much more playful and the Warsaw band give it plenty of scoot and scurry. A hint of Don Juan, perhaps, before we slip seamlessly into the strange little gavotte and minuet. The latter has some lovely, limpid writing; at times Szymanowski achieves a real sense of ebb and flow, that extraordinary ‘breathing’ quality one associates with Strauss.
The various elements of the symphony are expertly dovetailed but the Vivace marks a distinct change of mood and direction. This time the timps make a much more powerful impact, the string players digging in for all they’re worth. And surely this has its rhythmic roots a long way east of Vienna?
The fugal finale veers towards Scriabin again, although it sounds somewhat opaque at times. That said Wit conveys the rising tension very well indeed. It’s an imposing, muscular finale that expands without any sign of strain. All credit to the engineers for keeping it all in focus and sustaining that huge orchestral weight.
And huge is the operative word in the Third Symphony, scored for tenor soloist, chorus and large orchestra – including organ, bells, tam-tam, piano, celesta and two harps. The sung text, ‘The Song of the Night’, is from a poem by Mawlana Jalal ad-din Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet and founder of the Mevlevi order of Dervishes. The first movement is wonderfully evocative, the pulsing organ pedal and muted timps a prelude to the tenor’s entry with the words, ‘Do not sleep, O friend, through the night!’ Even though Szymanowski’s sound-world is still reminiscent of Scriabin there is a hint of Debussian languor as well. The music certainly shimmers and oscillates most seductively.
The chorus sings with passion and unanimity, cutting through the music’s more diffuse textures. They are a fine collection of singers, having played a key part in the success of the Naxos Mahler 8. Wit held that great structure together admirably and he does the same here, building up to that blazing peroration that begins at 6:35. This is incredibly sensuous music, played with panache.
The orientalism of the second movement is unmistakable from the outset, the chorus’s wordless melisma adding to the perfumed orchestral textures. It’s heady stuff, a work that cries out for an SACD recording, if only to uncover all those exotic orchestral details this CD doesn’t always reveal.
The tenor Ryszard Minkiewicz sounds suitably transported in ‘So quiet, others sleep... / I and God alone in the night’ and is even audible above the outburst at 1:30. What follows is altogether more diaphanous, a sense of barely suppressed ecstasy that grows to a light-drenched climax before fading to a serene close. There is plenty of sinew and muscle in this symphony and no excess fat, which translates into a much more robust, individual and engaging work.
Szymanowski fans need not hesitate, if only to savour this captivating ‘Song of the Night’. Yes, the Second has its moments but it’s too derivative and uneven to be completely satisfying. That said, it’s a plus having both symphonies on one disc. As for alternatives there is a Sinaisky 2 and 4 on Chandos (only available as a high-def lossless or MP3 download) and a Third and Stabat Mater under Polyansky on Chandos CHAN9937.
Whatever the competition this new Naxos disc is very welcome indeed. Another triumph for Maestro Wit and his busy Warsaw band.
Dan Morgan


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