SZYMANOWSKI. Harnasie, op. 55 (1923-31). Mandragora, op. 43 (1920). Kniaz Patiomkin (Prince Potemkin), op. 51 (1925).
Wieslaw Ochman (tenor), Alexander Pinderak (tenor), Ewa Marciniec (mezzo), Ewa Marczyk (violin), Kazimierz Koslacz (cello), Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Antoni Wit.
Naxos 8.570723 (B) (DDD) TT: 73:17

Polish polish. Always a good composer, Karol Szymanowski became a great one in the Twenties, once he had thrown off the traces of post-Wagnerianism and Impressionism and forged Polish folklore into a Modern music. In many ways, his music suffered because he lived in Poland, at the time a musical backwater whose taste ran to third-rate followers of Chopin. The Polish critical establishment considered even early Debussy unacceptable. Szymanowski's tours away from the country to places like Paris (as a young man, he was a virtuoso pianist) brought Debussy and beyond into his ken. Indeed, during his lifetime, his music scored far greater successes outside Poland than within it.

I find it hard to judge the music for the Micinski play Prince Potemkin. It's actually incidental music for the fifth act and, as such, tied to stage action. The liner notes, unfortunately, don't give us any of the situation for which Szymanowski intended the music. Formally, it's a little loose (a narrative like many film cues, actually), but one hears gorgeous stretches, particularly toward the end, when a chorus and solo mezzo enter with what sounds like a funeral song.

Mandragora, like Richard Strauss's Ariadne, was intended as an entertainment within the Molière play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Instead of music for the classical play, Szymanowski provided a commedia dell' arte ballet in three scenes. Mandragora is the fruit of Szymanowski's dissatisfaction with his previous idioms and view of art. He had dedicated himself to pure beauty -- "art for art's sake" -- tied to nothing but itself. After all, even the great musical Impressionists, also concerned with ravishing beauty, had a moral or philosophic vision. It wasn't beauty for its own sake. It consisted of an almost preternatural absorption of the details of the real world, to achieve a union with nature or even the super-natural. Whereas Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun makes you feel the summer heat, things like Szymanowski's Third Symphony and Love Songs of Hafiz almost always comes across to me as disembodied exotica, an attitude struck rather than deeply felt. Mandragora, despite its somewhat arty basis, clears away a lot of the purple weeds encrusted on Szymanowski's older style. The music is leaner, cleaner, and I think even the more beautiful for it. One also perceives a wider range of expression. Szymanowski allows humor (as opposed to whimsy) into his music, previously notable only through its absence. One finds satirical allusions (as well as straight borrowings) from Stravinsky's Firebird and Petrushka. Toward the end of the first scene, Szymanowski breaks into Neapolitan song, complete with a send-up of an Italian tenor. The funny thing is, it's an extremely good song of its type. One senses affection in the satire. The second scene contains short goodbye kisses to Wagner (Tristan) and Debussy (Prelude to the Afternoon, etc.) and moves on to the unusual: Italian dances with a decidedly Polish accent and unusual orchestral voicings, which carry over to the third scene. I believe Szymanowski, always a Polish nationalist, has begun to feel his roots.

Harnasie is the great national Polish ballet and stakes a major claim for the composer as a giant of musical Modernism. No company in Poland staged it during Szymanowski's lifetime. The composer has begun to absorb Stravinsky's example into his bones. The Russian's ritualism, as much as anything else, finds an echo chord within Szymanowski, and this becomes a dominant feature of Szymanowski's music from then on. Even with the striking change in Szymanowski's idiom exemplified by Mandragora, Harnasie's music comes as a shock -- raw, powerful stuff. The story concerns a gang of mountain robbers, the Harnasie, who carry off, like Lochinvar, a would-be bride from her wedding. The music evokes the Tatra mountains and the wild. It affords Szymanowski the opportunity to write great shouting choruses, to beat drums and bells, and to temporarily rest in the static world of ancient folklore, represented by the repetitive line of shepherds' songs and the unvarying refrains of folk poetry, to channel the primitive, paradoxically, in music of great sophistication and craft.

Antoni Wit deserves a much wider career than he's had so far. I've never heard a bad performance from him and have encountered quite a few excellent ones. I think his Harnasie better than Rattle's, which was wonderful. But Wit has a better overall grasp of the score. It's not just bright colors or momentary jolts. He makes you comprehend the work in its entirety. His account of Mandragora is simply the best I've heard, and he makes as much of the Patiomkin music as possible, achieving a strongly cohesive reading the further he goes along. By the end, you undergo a huge catharsis. As I've implied, you can't predict this from the score alone. The two tenors are operatic tenors and hence fairly crude singers, although Pinderak sings more flexibly and intelligently than Ochman, who (naturally) has the bigger career. Mezzo Ewa Marciniec shoots them both out of the water in her sorrow-laden contribution to Patiomkin. The Warsaw Philharmonic respond beautifully and seem to revel in the odd sounds Szymanowski gives them in Mandragora and Harnasie. But they also sing with genuine tragedy in Patiomkin. Yet another superb CD from Naxos, and for cheap, yet.

S.G.S. (February 2010)