Thursday, 6 May 2010

Anderszewski Szymanowski Focus Wigmore Hall (1)

In the 1990's, by sheer chance, I walked in on the TV. Wonderful music, playing to an image of wheatfields, swaying endlessly in a breeze. It was the famous documentary about Karol Szymanowski that cemented the composer's reputation in this country. Until then, his name was associated with virtuoso piano works, compared unfavourably to Liszt or Chopin. The documentary made a case for the composer on a much grander scale, with a complex individual personality of his own.

Szymanowski was an urbane cosmopolitan semi-aristocrat who owned a huge estate in Tymoszowka in the Polish part of the Ukraine (hence the wheatfields). Like many aesthetes from Goethe to Debussy and Ravel, he was fascinated by exotic places, and travelled in the Near East, imbibing the opulent Romanticism that Edward Said analyses in Orientalism (a key work for understanding modern art and music).  After 1917, his world collapsed. Decades of war and Communism didn't favour his reputation, but now he can  be assessed anew.

Piotr Anderszewski is curating a special Szymanowski Focus over two days at the Wigmore Hall, London.  If you missed the first, get to the second, on Friday 7th May where the programme is even better.

In the first concert, Anderszewski bracketed Szymanowski with his contemporaries, Janáček and Bartòk. Szymanowski's String Quartet no 1 in C op 37 bears the hallmarks of the composer's distinctive style - extremely high tessitura floating over rhythmic repetitions, quirky summations ending abruptly, held in silence.  It's a relatively mature work, from 1917, and the Belcea Quartet performed it with real panache, a great opener for the first great Szymanowski fest in years. If Bartòk's op 1 String Quartet (1908) sounded surprisngly pedestrian in  this performance, it was perhaps because the Belcea had put so much into perfecting Szymanowski, which is at it should be.

A better comparison was Janáček's In the Mists (1912), which Anderszewski paced elegantly, catching the underlying tension, often overlooked. Janáček's nostalgia is laced with frustration., a yearning to go forwards while being held back.  It was a good choice to precede Szymanowski's Myths op 30 (1915), when Henning Kraggerud joined Andreszewski.  Their interplay intensified the double edged flow in these pieces where balance keeps shifting. The Fountains of Arethusa refers to a myth about a woman who turns into a spring to escape a man who then turns into a river. Fluid interchanges, not firm lines: gradually, though, violin and piano flow together . The other two parts of this piece, Narcisscus and Dryads and Pan extend the shimmering harmonic ideas, the feeling of double entities vibrating beside each other. For a moment, Kraggerud plays alone, so high and pure he almost goes off the scale. He even moves away from the piano. He's drawn back, however because the essence of these pieces is duality.

Like Debussy and Scriabin, the exotic appealed to Szymanowski because it favoured impressionistic colour. He turned, too, to Polish idioms, which for a man of his class was a significant statement. Słopiewnie (Word Songs) op 46b (1921), uses texts by Julian Tuwim, but they're idiosyncrasic, "invented" language, experimenting with words as sounds, flowing impressionistically.  No straightforward literal "folksiness", but rather an experiment with rhythms and intervals, as they flow in speech, combined with a completely unspeechlike legato which explodes with expressive freedom. Iwona Sobotka's coloratura dynamic lifts the songs onto a higher plane.  Szymanowski's soaring violins, again, the concept adapted to voice. She wasn't as note perfect as she can be, but she's very experienced in this repertoire. Her Songs of a Fairy Tale Princess, is wonderful, I can hardly wait to hear it on Friday.Here's the link to my review.  Please see also Jim Samson "Chasing Beauty".

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