Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)

Szymanowsk is a bit of new discovery for me. I heard his 1st Violin Concerto in Bristol in March; the soloist Nicola Benedetti, and was very impressed with the beautiful, ethereal sound of this work. He has been a generally underestimated composer, but now he seems to be having a bit of a revival with more frequent performances, and he was one of the composers Simon Rattle had an interest in earlier in his career. I have a CD of Rattle and the C.B.S.O. in choral works and recently bought another which includes the 4rd Symphony and both of the two Violin Concertos. (I then discovered that I already have a recording performed by Polish artists and recorded way back in 1988. So much for my memory!) I’ve been playing both versions of the Concerto again, and still have that wonderful over-arching melody which holds the work together in my mind.

Last week I heard the Tokyo String Quartet play his Quartet No. 1 in C major op 37 in a Bath Festival concert. It was tough going, and sitting at the back of the Assembly Rooms in the cheaper seats I could hardly see the performers – and it’s helpful to see as well as to hear the inter-play between members of a quartet.

There are several recordings of the piece and I shall try and borrow one from our library; buying new CD’s is a practice I must learn to stop.

For some years Szymanowski was a member – the youngest – of the ‘Young Poland’ group of poets and composers, who believed that Polish music had become isolated and provincial and aimed to publish new music and promote a new national culture. The group was a constant feature of Szymanowski’s life, the friends meeting again for the first time for many years a little while before his premature death through TB, and associating themselves with the composition of his last work, the 2nd Violin Concerto.

I am now listening to the fourth symphony on the new disc which in effect is a piano concerto but with equal emphasis on soloist and orchestra, subtitled symphonie concertante.

It’s very vigorous and shows the composer’s confident use of the orchestral palette, as again a busy score reaches for the great over-arching melody which seems so typical of him. Much of his earlier inspiration came from his study of Wagner and Richard Strauss, and although he later moved away from their influence, the richness of their sound remains. In the CD programme note Malcolm Macdonald suggests that Szymanowski’s subsequent interest in the primitive, rhythmically vital, folk music of the Tatra Mountains influenced him in his later compositions.

I wouldn’t know, but the word ‘vital’ sums up my feeling for the symphony and all that I have heard of his music so far.

Here is a composer who has something to say, and it’s abundantly worth hearing