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SZYMANOWSKI. Piano Sonata No 1, Op 8; Piano Sonata No 2. Op 21; Piano Sonata No 3, Op 36; Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor. Raymond Clarke (piano) Athene ATH CD19 DDD [73' 50"]



(This is a revised version of the original review, Aug 99)
This is an important disc and it has to be said at once that Raymond Clarke is a staggering pianist of exceptional gifts. In case it is not obvious to any listener to the performances, Szymanowski's music is incredibly difficult both technically and interpretatively. There are so many notes, huge chords and constant changes of mood and tempo.

In fact, this is my major reservation about the disc. The music is so intense that it is exhausting. It becomes wearisome. There are moments of great excitement and, occasionally, calm but it is so devoid of effective contrast. It is often lacking in direction and purpose and I feel sure the composer had this in mind since each of the sonatas ends with a fugue which musical form, or device, is very predictable, restrictive and can be academically stuffy. The composer, seeing his loose episodic meanderings, then embarks on the 'respectability' of a fugue as if he wants to be accepted as a composer in direct line from Bach. The piano at Nottingham University is 'tubby' at times and 'suspect' in other ways.

The other reservation may not be the pianist's fault either but the range of tone from pppp to ffff is not made and so contrast is lost and the composer's instructions are not realised. For example, in the Sonata No 2, bar 70 is marked p, bar 73 mp and bar 75, pp. It is not really that evident in this recording; bar 97 is marked fff and con fuoco, bars 122 and 125 are marked pp and so on. The Sonata No 3 begins ppp but it isn't and so when we reach the first fff at bar 114 the eight degrees of increased range is not realised. The pppp velocissimo at bar 210 and 214 should sound as an inaudible whisper, but it does not. However, other recordings do not follow all the dynamics either and Szymanowski's instructions are excessive.

I accept that Clarke has so many notes and other major technical difficulties to contend with, which he does remarkably well (there seemed to be a few nasty moments in the curious A major Fugue of the Sonata No 2), that all the variations of tone may be the least of his problems. The piano has a couple of 'bad' notes in the octave upwards from middle C.

It is incredible to believe that the Sonata No 1 won a Chopin prize in 1910. Perhaps this is because of the obvious influences of Chopin particularly his own first sonata and the Etude in E flat Op 10 No 11. What adds to the tedium of Szymanowski's Sonata No 1 is that the first three movements are all exclusively in ¾ time. There is no variation of time signature. The finale figure is in common time. The third movement Tempo di minuetto has big chords played as arpeggios which makes it sound like a musical box and something quite puerile albeit attractive. All the themes of this sonata are hardly memorable and the flabby structures are contrasted by the dominant 'correctness' of the subsequent fugue.

Like Chopin's first sonata, also in C minor, Szymanowski's is an essay in which the various constituent points are not made coherently or with any semblance of order. At least, the Chopin has a gorgeous slow movement.

I find it almost as incredible that no less a pianist than Arthur Rubinstein gave the première of the Sonata No 2 in Warsaw in 1911. It begins with a frequent Szymanowski rising theme. Here it is B, C#, D, F, G#, B. This is a two movement work; an allegro assai and a there and variations ending with a fugue and with a sarabande and minuet thrown in thus showing again the composer looking over his shoulder either as a mark of respect to older composers or displaying his lack of personal security. That the music is elaborate rather defeats it. It is so dense in texture that is rather tiring. The second movement is not a unified whole and, again, none of the themes are memorable. There is, however, a successful allegretto scherzando section, mainly in B flat.

The Sonata No 3 dates from 1917 and is marginally the best of the three. It is not so overwhelmingly exhausting but it is tonally unstable. The one continuous movement is really four sections but the boundaries are not crystal clear. The fugue is the best of the three but, as with all three sonatas we are left with having heard three massive essays of moody, intense, perhaps psychological music that some may find claustrophobic.

The Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor is slight.

I believe the only other available recordings of the sonatas is Martin Jones' six CD set for Nimbus. The sonatas in his set do not follow the dynamics and there are many wrong notes, missing notes and one gets the impression that Nimbus put pressure on Martin Jones to record them without giving him time to know the pieces. The Nimbus set is poor. If you want the Szymanowski sonatas you have no choice but Clarke's performances.

Raymond Clarke's performances are almost breathtaking and this is an important and welcome disc. There will be many who find it quite irresistible.

Raymond Clarke has recently suffered a bad accident and we wish him a full and lasting recovery.


David Wright



A response from Raymond Clarke

Karol Szymanowski is firmly established as one of the greatest figures in twentieth-century music. Dr. David Wright's review of my recent recording of this composer's three piano sonatas demonstrates a failure to understand their formal processes. Having studied this composer's works in depth since the mid 1980s, I wish to take this opportunity of making the following observations.

[1] 'Flabby structures...Like Chopin's first sonata, also in C minor, Szymanowski's is an essay in which the various constituent points are not made coherently or with any semblance of order.'

The parallels between Szymanowski's and Chopin's first sonatas were drawn (more constructively) in the detailed booklet notes which I wrote to accompany my CD. Both sonatas present textbook examples of clear, well-defined structures. The main points of reference to traditional formal design in Szymanowski's First Sonata are as follows, with precise identification as to where they occur in my own recording:

FIRST MOVEMENT (sonata form): first theme (0'04); transition to second theme (0'50); second theme in relative major (1'28); transition to development (2'46); development (3'02); start of recapitulation (4'17); transition to second theme (4'59); second theme in submediant (5'32); second theme in tonic (5'40); coda (6'21);

SECOND MOVEMENT (ternary form): opening section (0'01); contrasting central section in tonic minor (2'17); decorated recapitulation (3'12); coda (4'40);

THIRD MOVEMENT (ternary form): minuet (0'01); trio (1'18); da capo (2'40); coda (3'42);

FOURTH MOVEMENT (introduction and double fugue): introduction (0'01); first fugue subject (2'13); second fugue subject (3'52); cyclic reference to first movement (5'23); stretto (6'46); extended coda (8'09).

[2] 'What adds to the tedium of Szymanowski's Sonata No.1 is that the first three movements are all exclusively in 3/4 time.'

Although the time signature does not vary, extremely-frequent tempo fluctuations ensure that the listener rarely has to listen to the same pulse for more than a few bars in succession; moreover, the metre is often unrecognisable as 3/4 because of Szymanowski's rhythmic freedom. Even if this was not the case, the total duration of the first three movements, seventeen minutes, would still not be an excessive length of time to expect any receptive listener to concentrate on music in an unvarying 3/4 metre: the first movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony lasts longer than seventeen minutes in many performances (well over twenty minutes in Giulini's magnificent DG recording) and although this movement is written exclusively in 3/4, remaining at the same tempo throughout, few would consider that this gives valid grounds for accusations of 'tedium'.

[3] 'The second movement [of Sonata No.2] is not a unified whole'.

All of the musical material of the second movement, including the fugue, is derived by developing fragments from the opening sixteen-bar theme and its subsidiary voices; the movement is therefore unified to a remarkable degree.

[4] 'Sonata tonally unstable.'

The Third Sonata is not tonally unstable: such a term is relevant only to music which explicitly defines a key centre yet which simultaneously undermines it. Szymanowski does not define any key explicitly: instead, he prepares for the E major which is to emerge at the conclusion, by careful control of underlying tonal hints, of which the two passages of static implied dominant pedal on B (at 3'03 and 4'46) are merely the most prominent manifestations of dozens of instances of his subtle use of elusive tonal undercurrents.

[5] 'The one continuous movement [of Sonata No.3] is really four sections but the boundaries are not crystal clear'.

The boundaries of the structure are defined precisely, leaving no scope for ambiguity: the four sections of the Third Sonata begin at 0'01, 5'51, 9'35 and 10'37 respectively.

[6] 'The composer, seeing his loose episodic meanderings, then embarks on the "respectability" of a fugue as if he wants to be accepted as a composer in direct line from Bach'.

There are no 'loose episodic meanderings' in the sonatas: the concentration of musical thought is such that almost all elements of the texture are derived from the main thematic substance. Concluding a set of variations with a fugue is characteristic of many of Szymanowski's works (notably the Second Symphony) and not indicative of a reference to Bach: several essays by the composer himself (reprinted in Szymanowski on Music, published by Toccata Press) suggest an ambivalent approach to the German tradition and some of these articles confirm unequivocally that Szymanowski resented generalised citations of the name of Bach in inappropriate contexts by music journalists.

[7] 'Each of the sonatas ends with a fugue which musical form, or device, is very predictable, restrictive and can be academically stuffy'.

When comparing the double fugues which conclude each of the three sonatas, one observes huge contrasts between them in internal construction. Szymanowski clearly wished to avoid repeating the same formula, so the techniques of fugal composition which he employed for the fugue of the Second Sonata differ radically from those of the First Sonata, whilst the fugue of the Third Sonata breaks entirely new ground. Conventional techniques of thematic metamorphosis (inversion, augmentation, diminution, stretto) are used with a freedom which is the very opposite of 'academically stuffy'; themes are fragmented so that smaller motivs from them can be isolated and developed ingeniously in diverse ways which are not at all 'predictable'; the composer's musical imagination is displayed at its peak in all three of the fugues, providing the richest music of each sonata, ruling out any possibility that Szymanowski found the use of fugal writing 'restrictive'.

[8] 'It is so devoid of effective contrast'.

All of Szymanowski's sonatas feature effective and extreme contrasts, not only in tempo (from Largo to Prestissimo) and in dynamics (from pppp to ffff) but also in texture, as is illustrated by the frequent passages where the density of the writing temporarily subsides. It is a tribute to the strength of the music's construction that the sense of unity remains intact in all three works, despite the extreme (and effective) contrasts which would have undermined the sonatas' equilibrium in the hands of a lesser composer.

[9] 'It is often formless and lacking in direction and purpose.'

Although an attractive piece, the First Sonata can be seen as flawed when judged by the standards of Szymanowski's later work; however, the two mature sonatas are seminal works of early twentieth-century piano literature, both of them sophisticated products of a brilliant musical mind. The works' intellectual logic operates on a high level, as has been demonstrated through analyses by several musicologists.

Advanced analytical techniques in use today (developing the work of such pioneers as Rudolph Reti, Heinrich Schenker and his pupil Felix Salzer) can claim a scientific basis, in that they take into account the psychology of musical perception and memory (conscious and subconscious) in the context of a microscopically-detailed integrated evaluation of all the interdependent elements of musical language, which precludes invalid 'selective criticism'. The primitive, discredited criteria of musical assessment used in the review of Szymanowski's sonatas (according to which if a composition follows certain rules it is successful, whilst if it breaks these taboos it is not) are now hardly given credence even at 'A' level standard. Musical analysis is designed as a tool to provide insight into artistic achievement, not as a weapon to denigrate it: given the respect that the work of Karol Szymanowski enjoys amongst recognised music scholars, his creative accomplishments should be assessed with humility; to make vague destructive criticisms, such as to assert that his music is 'lacking in direction and purpose', is analogous to attempting to cut Everest down to size by clawing at the bottom of it with one's fingernails.


David Wright replies

My review of Raymond Clarke's excellent CD of the Szymanowski Piano Sonatas was sent to him prior to its publication on the website.

My observations about the 'form' and 'structure of these sonatas were primarily not technical observations. I was not concerning myself with 'sonata form' or 'ternary form' but the general meaning of the word defined  in my dictionary as 'clearly defined shape'. My view, shared by many musical scholars, is that Szymanowski's sonatas do not have clearly defined shape aurally. If, for example, one compares the form of a Beethoven sonata, even without having a knowledge of musical form, the clearly defined shape is aurally obvious.

I went to a lot of trouble over this review and I am aware that its publication on the web site has lead to further sales of this important disc.

David Wright is quite 'poorly' at the moment. We send him our best wishes for a full recovery.

Len Mullenger Sept 99


see compilation of reviews here


David Wright



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