(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.
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
 '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);
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).
 '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'.
 '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
 'Sonata No.3...is 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
 '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.
 '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.
 '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'.
 '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.
 '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
David Wright is quite 'poorly' at the moment. We send him our best wishes
for a full recovery.
Len Mullenger Sept 99