Szymanowski performed by Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

CHSA 5143

The premise of this collection of works by Karol Szymanowski focuses on the struggles of the composer, choosing works which had a first performance that didn’t live up to those expectations of audiences. This is an interesting concept to base a whole album: focussing on the struggles of a composer, rather than his successes.

The album opens with his Symphony No. 3, Op. 27 ‘The Song of the Night’, which opened in London with no voices, despite it being scored for solo tenor and chorus. Instead, they decided to use a cello to stand in for the tenor, and an organ to fill in the choral parts. The beginning of the piece is brash, the orchestra heralding the whole-tone harmony throughout the symphony and the chorus having an almost unearthly power over the whole work. The orchestra and voices weave throughout the piece, creating a moody atmosphere as the tenor muses on ‘Man, God and the universe’ asking big questions and musing about the stars. The second movement, which is a dance, is fractured throughout; so many thoughts and motifs scattered through the whole movement, and never really linking together. The final movement is truly beautiful, with the tenor taking centre stage to begin with, then interrupted by the chorus who fade in and out of his musings. It finishes in near silence, giving the audience time to contemplate the dazzling nature of the whole work.

‘Love Songs of Hafiz, Op. 26’ premiered in a ballet, but were later premiered in Paris by an orchestra three years after this. Each song is based on paraphrases by Hans Bethge, a German poet. The soundscapes that Szymanowski creates have a deliberate sense of the other-world about them, be it in the harmonies he uses or the instrumentation. This is all exciting, but despite this, these pieces don’t quite match the opening Symphony which dazzles you with so many ideas you become almost dizzy by the end by trying to work out the meaning behind them. While these songs are performed brilliantly by both soloist and orchestra, the composition doesn’t quite match up to expectation here.

‘Symphony No. 1, Op. 15’ finishes this collection, and is perhaps considered as one of Szymanowski’s greatest struggles. With critique describing it as a ‘complicated and insincere composition’, Szymanowski decided to withdraw the score and described it to a friend as ‘the greatest humbug in all the world!’. The first movement weaves in and out of chromaticism, yet has some element of the romantic about it as it builds and wanes. The problem with it lies in its sense of direction: the ideas are all there but never truly link together. The second movement becomes more turbulent still, and becomes a web of sound which is interesting to listen to and detangle, though is still confusing in its structure.

It is interesting to have a whole album dedicated to the struggles of a composer, and it makes for exciting listening as we hear some transitional work in amongst Szymanowski’s signature style. It will not be for everyone: if you hate the truly experimental, modernist works then you should steer clear of this. If, however, you are interested in the processes of a composer’s working life, then this makes for intriguing listening and consideration.

Reviewer: Emma Longmuir

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