Thursday, 23 February 2012

Scriabin on speed? Szymanowski's Third, Jurowski

Vladimir Jurowski conducted Karol Szymanowski's Third Symphony, the "Song of the Night", with the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall. This is a magnificent symphony, almost certainly guaranteed to stun an audience into silence. Gosh, I wish I'd been there, the vibe must have been wonderful. On the other hand, listening at home on the radio means more objective listening  in musical terms.

There is no way Szymanowski's Third can possibly fail to impress, but it's a far deeper work than the BBC announcer's hype would have.  Sure there are references to Wagner and Debussy, but why? and for what purpose? And why was Szymanowski drawn to 13th century Persian mysticism?  And why specifically this poem, with its imagery of night, hidden intrigue, and distant stars? Szymanowski's Third is a lot more than Scriabin on speed.

The hyper perfumed ambience is a cloak for much more dangerous emotions. Like so many Europeans before him, Szymanowski was drawn to "orientalism" because it was associated with alien values, often suppressed in polite western society. Anything "foreign", "pagan" and "exotic"was danerous but offered alluring alternatives. Musically, too, orientalism was a way of experimenting with new musical form. It is nonsense that modern music was forced on the world by Schoenberg. He was part of a general search for new means of expression.  Szymanowski, in his own aristocratic, esoteric way, was finding a way to say in music which was his own. Although he was Polish, Szymanowski's outlook in this period was international, more attuned to Paris and St Petersburg. He knew about Stravinsky and Debussy, the modernists of his time. Even Wagner is not as great an influence as is made out, for though there are quotes from Tristan und Isolde, Szymanowski's style is different. And it's absolutely not true that he was influenced by Janáček (yet to write his greatest works), or Martinu who was only in his early 20's. Where did the BBC get that from?

It would have been more perceptive to think of the Third in terms of Szymanowski's other work, like the String Quartets, The Love Songs of Hafiz, the Fourth Symphony, Harnasie or Król Roger. None of these are obscure works by any means. Indeed, Król Roger (1926) is particularly relevant as the opera deals with homosexual love. The theme is the same as that of the Third Symphony, the "Song of the Night". Under cover of darkness, feelings that can't be expressed in daylight can find release. As Stephen Johnson points out in the "Discovering Music" segment broadcast during the interval, the text is about male love, or love between man and Dionysic semi-divine figure. Król Roger.all over, the Third in more modern lines but just as uncompromising.

Jurowski said that Szymanowski had an "almost autistic obssession with detail", though the bold sweep of this symphony would suggest otherwise. This music surges confidently, aware that it's breaking new, dangerous ground. If anything, it was Jurowski's over-focus on detail that inhibited this performance so the real intensity of Szymanowski's vision didn't really ignite. Less perfume, more potency. Still, it must have been a thrilling experience and a most enjoyable evening.  Music as good as this is never wrong.  For a first experience, it would have been astounding. But for the real Szymanowski listen to Antonin Wit, Boulez and even Simon Rattle, who led the Szymanowski revival in the early 1980's., when Szymanowski was still suppressed by the Communist regime.  (Free download of Wit's performance in Warsaw last year HERE) All the old Wit recordings are being reissued. Lots about Szymanowski on this site, please explore. Will be more, too.

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