SZYMANOWSKI: Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess, op. 31. Harnasie, op. 55.
Love Songs of Hafiz, op. 26.
Iwona Sobotka (soprano); Katarina Karnéus (mezzo); Timothy Robinson
(tenor); City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Simon Rattle
EMI 3 64435 2 (F) (DDD) TT: 65:15
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Beautiful. Karol Szymanowski, the great Polish composer after Chopin
and before Bacewicz and Lutoslawski, worked long and hard to find his
true voice. He began as a follower of Richard Strauss and then fell under
the influence of Impressionism. Around the end of World War I, Stravinsky
-- particularly the Stravinsky of Petrushka -- changed his music profoundly.
Szymanowski, following the Russian's example, began to absorb his native
folklore in order to fashion his own brand of Modernism. The three periods
don't stand discretely apart. There's plenty of blurring, particularly
between the second and third phases of Szymanowski's creative career.
Furthermore, Szymanowski writes so masterfully, that he produces great
work in all three periods. I admit to having the most problems with the
Impressionist pieces. Almost all of them spring from an Oriental, hot-house
exoticism (especially the Third Symphony) that simply makes me cringe,
but I have to admit the craft and imagination that goes into them.
Two of the three works -- Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess and Love
Songs of Hafiz -- typify Szymanowski's impressionist manner. Up to now, I couldn't
stand them. It turns out, however, that I've heard less-than-stellar
performances. Rattle and his soloists turn these works into things of
searing beauty. Both began life for piano and voice. Szymanowski orchestrated
the complete Hafiz and three of the original six Princess songs. The
Princess songs, to poems by the composer's sister, typically speak of
lonely, unrequited love. The narrator, usually alone at night, sings
to the sky. Each song begins with a wordless roulade of notes, always
expressing emotion so intense that it bypasses speech. I've heard the
complete set in their original piano incarnation, and the orchestrations
lift them into a different realm. You can scarcely believe you hear the
same music. The Love Songs of Hafiz, from a few years later, set Hans
Bethge's translation of Persian poetry. Bethge had earlier caused a revolution
in German poetry with his translations from the Chinese, some of which
formed the basis of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. The drooping-lily
languor of Hafiz (and its counterpart, Love Songs of the
Foolish Muezzin from, I believe, 1911) drive me up the wall. Again, however, the performers
transform the work into something more vigorous and emotionally direct.
The ballet Harnasie, from the final period, throws over the velvet traces
of the previous scores. Even those who think of Polish music as Chopin
and his imitators might find the ballet a sudden slap in the face. Based
on a kind of Lochinvar story, the ballet really provides an excuse to
dig deep into Polish folk music as an expression of both nationalism
and primitivism. Stravinsky -- particularly the more raucous bits of
Firebird and Petrushka and to some extent Rite
of Spring -- comes to
mind more than once, but overall the ballet makes a strongly individual
impression. Stamping rhythms alternate with long, yearning melodies intertwining
with one another, like folksingers who riff on one another's tunes. In
the latter, one often gets the feeling of night, the elemental underpinning
of a Chopin nocturne. Ironically (considering the conscious attempt to
express the Polish soul), the ballet never found a stage production in
Poland during the composer's lifetime. Polish music may have been dominated
for too long by second-hand Chopins, aping the surface, rather than the
substance of that music.
The music suits Rattle down to the ground. I've always considered his
strong suits drama and color. I'm not so sure I'd like to hear his Mozart
or Brahms, but he certainly comes up a winner here. The two song cycles
achieve ecstatic intensity, rather than drown a listener in the usual
heavy perfume. Come to think of it, that may well be what Szymanowski
had in mind. The Harnasie is all animal spirits, and "The Raid of
the Harnasie," the climax of the piece -- a glorious riot of brass,
cymbal crashes, and choir -- should lift you out of your socks.
S.G.S. (March 2007)