One of the most vivid moments in pianist Arthur Rubinstein's colorful autobiography is his discovery of composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), a fellow Pole a few years his senior, who was still unknown when a casual acquaintance showed Rubinstein some of his music in manuscript.
"We were convinced we would find the naive scribblings of a schoolboy," Rubinstein said in "My Young Years." "It is difficult to describe our amazement after playing only a few bars of a prelude. This music had been written by a master! We read feverishly all the manuscripts, becoming more and more enthusiastic and excited, as we knew we were discovering a great Polish composer! His style owed much to Chopin, his form had something of Scriabin, but there was already the stamp of a powerful, original personality to be felt in the line of his melody and in his daring and original modulations."
What he had discovered was, in fact, the most important Polish musician since Chopin, a man whose work as a composer and music educator helped to bring Poland to the front ranks of Europe's musical culture. Today, Poland is the home of two of the world's leading composers (some would say the most interesting of all): Witold Lutoslawski (born in 1913) and Krzysztof Penderecki (1933), both deeply indebted to Szymanowski.
Besides developing both a personal and a recognizably Polish style, Szymanowski preserved the spirit of romanticism, through the traumatic experience of World War I, in distinctive forms deeply influenced by Eastern mysticism and some elements of Polish folk music. More than a century after his birth (the 108th anniversary was yesterday), his music still has a freshness, vitality and distinctive impact that are the marks of a true classic. No other composer is quite like him.
Recent systematic efforts to record Szymanowski's most important works have had mixed but, on the whole, intriguing results. A complete set would not be an impossible challenge, since he composed relatively little (62 opus numbers). Meanwhile, works now available in at least one good recording, sometimes even two, give a fair idea of his stature. The primary sources of Szymanowski on records (both using Polish performers) are the Marco Polo label, which explores unfamiliar music of many kinds, and the Polish label Muza. Each has about half a dozen Szymanowski CDs on sale in this country. They overlap somewhat in content, and most are well worth hearing.
Topping my personal list of essential works by Szymanowski is the opera "King Roger" -- a work deeply influenced by Eastern mysticism, with a plot modeled on the "Bacchae" of Euripides, a curious treatment of irrational and ecstatic elements in the human psyche. Some will still remember it from a concert performance given some years ago at Wolf Trap. The only recording then available had been made by Muza in 1965; it was well-sung but lacked an English libretto. It is still the only available recording but is now on compact discs from the English label Olympia (OCD 303, two CDs), still with no libretto but a useful plot summary. The set is filled out with the interesting folk-flavored ballet-pantomime "Harnasie" ("The Mountain Robbers") for tenor, chorus and orchestra. The version of this work on Marco Polo 8.223292 is well-performed but has substantially less music. The Marco Polo disc also has an orchestration of the short, popular piano Etude in B-flat Minor and the quarter-hour pantomime "Mandragora," which shows the influence of Stravinsky's ballet music.
The two violin concertos are essential Szymanowski, brilliantly structured and orchestrated and fine exemplars of 20th-century romantic lyricism. They are beautifully performed on Marco Polo 8.223291 with the brief Nocturne and Tarantelle. Also well worth knowing are his Myths, Op. 30, and other short works for violin and piano, which can be heard on Muza PNCD 065 with his superb String Quartet No. 3.
His first two symphonies (excellently recorded on Marco Polo 8.223248) are interesting chiefly as evidence of how skillfully the young composer mastered the idioms of Richard Strauss and how (for a time) he adored Wagner. Symphony 3 ("Song of the Night") for soprano (or tenor), chorus and orchestra is (like "King Roger") eloquent testimony to his interest in the culture and mysticism of the Mideast. So are his three great song cycles, "Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin," "Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess," and, above all, "Love Songs of Hafiz." All three of these cycles can (and should) be heard on Marco Polo 8.223294, which has about 25 minutes' worth of other songs as well. The latter two cycles are also on Muza PNCD 067, plus nearly 50 minutes more of songs, including a marginally satisfactory version of his "Songs to the Words of James Joyce." Lovers of vocal music may want both song discs, despite the duplicated material, because the treatment is strikingly varied; Muza uses Szymanowski's piano accompaniments; Marco Polo uses expert orchestral arrangements that are not by Szymanowski but will appeal to many listeners. Neither recording supplies texts, in Polish or English, but the performances are good.
"Song of the Night" can be heard on one of the best Szymanowski discs in the catalogue (Muza PNCD 063), with his other most important choral works, the "Stabat Mater," the Cantata "Demeter" and the Litany to the Virgin Mary. All but "Demeter" are performed by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, Witold Rowicki conducting, in 1961 performances that have been well-transferred to CD. Marco Polo's all-digital recording of the "Stabat Mater" is good but less compelling and the rest of the disc is not as interesting as the "Song of the Night."
The Fourth Symphony ("Symphonie Concertante") is one of Szymanowski's best-known works, thanks to a recording (RCA 60046-2-RG) with Rubinstein playing the important piano part. Somewhat to my surprise, I found the Muza recording (PNCD 062), with Rowicki conducting and a pianist named Tadeusz Zmudinski, as enjoyable as the Rubinstein. Muza also includes two early works, the Symphony No. 2 and the Concert Overture in E; RCA has Rubinstein playing Liszt's Concerto No. 1 and (superbly) Manuel de Falla's "Nights in the Gardens of Spain." An interesting selection of solo piano works (some great mazurkas, the Etude in B-flat Minor, the Masques, Op. 34 and the complex Sonata No. 2) is well-presented on Muza PNCD 066. Now Playing
A distinguished gathering of Liszt scholars and performers will be meeting at Catholic University Thursday through Saturday for the annual Festival of the American Liszt Society. The focus of their attention is a composer who seems to be coming into his own -- receiving from scholars and performers a kind of serious attention that he has always deserved but not always had. New Liszt recordings pour out so fast one can hardly list them all, let alone listen. One, however, that I have been enjoying recently is "Liszt at the Opera" (Hyperion CDA66371/2, two CDs), Vol. 6 of pianist Leslie Howard's distinguished survey of Liszt's complete piano music. It has more than 2 1/2 hours of Liszt's reworking of themes from such operas as "Don Giovanni," "Eugene Onegin," "Lucia" and "Norma" and should surprise and delight lovers of piano and opera.
Daniel Barenboim, who will give a piano recital tomorrow night at the Kennedy Center, was recorded in live performances in Chicago last year, playing the three Brahms Sonatas for violin and piano with his friend and fellow superstar Itzhak Perlman. The result, just issued on Sony SK 45817, is quite special.
Pianist Richard Goode should sound excellent Thursday night in the Terrace Theater, and it is likely to be the last time Washingtonians can hear this large talent in that small auditorium. There are still two dozen works to go in his complete Beethoven cycle for Nonesuch, but the flavor is distinctive and the quality is world-class in the works already issued -- the five last sonatas on Nonesuch 79211 and the three of Opus 31 on 79212.