There is much biographical detail about Karol Szymanowski available on-line and in good old-fashioned reference books. On the other hand, a few sentences will help contextualise this selection of piano music.
Although regarded as a Polish composer, Szymanowski was born in the Ukraine on 6 October 1882. After study at the Warsaw Conservatory, he completed his first piano sonata and an overture for orchestra. Moving to Berlin in 1906 he began to compose in a German-Romantic style. Soon he abandoned this, and turned his thoughts towards Russian music, including influence from Scriabin. An additional stimulus was French impressionism. After teaching duties in Warsaw, several European tours as a concert pianist, and a visit to the United States he discovered Polish folk-songs and dances. This was to be seminal in his becoming a Polish nationalist composer, inspired by the arts, music and folklore of that country. Between 1926 and 1929 he was director of music at the Warsaw Conservatory, his old ‘alma mater’, and president of the Warsaw Academy of Music. Karol Szymanowski died of tuberculosis on 28 March 1938.
It is ‘conventional’ to refer to Karol Szymanowski as the ‘the greatest Polish composer since Chopin.’ This can be qualified by suggesting that he is certainly more voluminous rather than greater: his considerable catalogue of music is testament to his industry in composing music in virtually every form: two operas, four symphonies, two violin concertos, symphonic poems, songs and piano music. Poland has produced many ‘great’ composers including Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) and Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933).
Stylistically, Szymanowski is diverse with specific influences from Max Reger, Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin and even Arnold Schoenberg. Turning to the piano music, this is often characterised by huge technical demands and the need for considerable interpretative skills. The pianist needs to be able to address the ‘sonorous fabric’ of late romantic piano style as well as the ‘effervescent, shimmering colours of impressionism’, and the development of this style into chromaticism and dissonance.
Barbara Karaśkiewicz has selected four groups of pieces from across Szymanowski’s career. It gives the listener an opportunity to appreciate the composer’s development over a 35-year period.
The opening work is the Nine Preludes, op.1 which were completed between 1899 and 1900 when the composer was only seventeen years old. The listener will find that these pieces are a kind of half-way house between the romanticism of Chopin and the more chromatic style of Reger and with a few nods to Scriabin. The Preludes explore several moods including ‘wistful’ (No.7), ‘reflective’ (No.6) and feature several ‘songs without words.’ No. 5 pays homage to Chopin Etude in C minor, op.10, no.10 (Revolutionary). The set includes the composer’s earliest surviving works (Preludes 7 and 8) which date to 1896. The most popular are No.1 and No.8, however, I think that these Nine Preludes deserve to be heard as an entire set, in order. They were dedicated to Artur Rubenstein (1887-1982).
The Four Études (Studies), op.4, like many such pieces are predicated on being ‘exercises’ for pianists, that major on a technical device woven into a demanding concert piece which are only in the gift of a virtuosic pianist. They severally explore romantic harmonies, complex double notes, octaves and other pianistic figurations. Once again Scriabin and Chopin would appear to be the models for all these Études. They were composed between 1902 and 1904.
Some 12 years later, during the First World War, Szymanowski wrote his Masques op.34. These three pieces had ‘programmatic’ titles which included, ‘Scheherazade’, ‘Tantris the Fool’ and ‘The Serenade of Don Juan.’ These pieces have moved on from their roots in Chopin and Scriabin and now look to the ‘descriptive’ music of Liszt, Debussy and Ravel for their inspiration. They do not simply describe a literary tale, but attempt to get under the ‘mask’ of each character. Full details of the underlying programme are given in the liner notes. The three Masques are enormously complex, both harmonically and in their formal structure. It is my favourite work on this CD.
The final selection in this exploration of Karol Szymanowski’s piano music are the expressionistic (Schoenberg rather than Chopin) Two Mazurkas, op.62, which were written only three years before the composer’s death. It is understood that although the title refers to a national Polish dance, Szymanowski has remodelled this by a free development of the mazurka rhythm and introduced considerable decoration, which emphasises piano sonorities rather than the parodying the original dance.
Dr Anna Stachura has written a nine-page essay about Karol Szymanowski and this selection of piano music. Each piece is given a detailed, satisfying but not overly technical analysis. It has been translated from the Polish (also included) by Barbara Karaskiewicz. My only complaint is that the text of these notes is a wee bit wee: I had to use a magnifying glass, and I could find no ‘on-line’ .pdf file to download.
Polish-born pianist Barbara Karaśkiewicz plays these four works with great understanding, technical aplomb and interpretive skill. It makes a splendid introduction to the piano music of Karol Szymanowski.