Here’s a set of rare works indeed by a composer who is
no longer a bit of an interloper in the recording world. He is
coming to be regarded as one of the 20th Century greatest
masters. And how good to have this music played by an orchestra
under a conductor who have such a down-to-earth understanding
of 20th Century Polish Music and of Szymanowski in
particular. They have also recorded the complete output of Lutosławski.
Let’s start with the big work ‘Harnasie’. Perhaps,
like me you are coming to it for the first time. Composed in
the composer’s third period - the time when he was most
interested in the folk music of Poland - this ballet tells a
story vaguely reminiscent of Peer Gynt. A bride is abducted on
her wedding day, not by an individual lover but by a tribe of
Tatra Highlanders - the Harnasie. This allows Szymanowski a chance
to indulge his love of the dances and melodies of the Tatra Mountains
and to pour his ideas into this ballet score. He rented a house
for many years in the region and often heard and noted the music
he found around him. The final result is a red-blooded, joyous
and at time frenetic and heady mixture of Bartók, Borodin
and Ravel (of La Valse?). Its thirty-five minutes flash
by. There are marches, drinking songs and all sorts of dances
and goings-on. There are therefore certain sung sections - Szymanowski
himself and Jerzy Rytard wrote the text - which come off very
well from a very authentic sounding choir. Naxos have not, indeed
apparently could not supply the texts due to copyright
reasons. However Keith Anderson in his booklet notes does not
even offer us a scene by scene résumé, although
we have several performer biographies and photographs and an
extended biographical essay on Szymanowski which is very handy.
The volume control I have found must be set at a much higher
level than usual to get the full benefit of the intoxicating
orchestration. The opening flute solo needs to be quite loud
and that will prevent you from constantly making adjustments.
We often talk of Szymanowski’s influences as Scriabin,
or Debussy or Polish folk dances and the ballet Mandragora demonstrates
his magpie tendencies further. Written during a transitional
phase in the composer’s career here we can find Stravinsky,
even Borodin (again) and in part 2, I think Manuel de Falla.
Stravinsky is also in the mix, especially Petrushka, a
score Szymanowski much loved and lies behind the work’s
commedia dell’arte story line. There is even a part for
what seems to be an off-stage bel canto tenor or is he
just distantly recorded. It is wonderfully performed by Alexander
Pindarak who also has a few rather curious, spoken words in part
3. Like Petrushka it is at times so descriptive that cartoon
music comes to mind. The whole piece is one scintillating musical
parody. It is here wonderfully played with many, many details
clearly articulated with Szymanowski’s unique language
clearly understood by orchestra and conductor.
Composed midway between these two masterpieces comes the unpublished,
brief ‘Prince Potemkin’ incidental music. The play
in question was by Szymanowski’s friend Tadeusz Miciński.
He had worked with him before on for example the text of the
3rd Symphony and his exotic, oriental ideas had inspired King
Roger the work immediately preceding this one. Potemkin inhabits
a world of half-lights and mystery - slow and magical both in
harmony and orchestration. It includes a mezzo-soprano and again,
a chorus in its second half. Despite its impressionist atmosphere
it also uses a Tatra folk-tune, here to quote Keith Anderson “transformed
for an evocative dramatic purpose in music that has a valid existence
apart from the play.” A-men to that.
As well as the essay and photographs of the performers we have
their career profiles which are given generous space. I find
this to be an excellent disc both in repertoire and in performance
and if it were full price I would hunt it out. As it is, it will
fit neatly into a Saturday shopping trolley and give you hours
of fascinating listening.
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