SZYMANOWSKI: Stabat Mater, op. 53. Veni Creator, op. 57. Litany to the Virgin Mary, op. 59. Demeter, op. 37b. Penthesilea, op. 18.
Iwona Hossa (soprano); Ewa Marciniec (mezzo); Jaroslaw Brek (baritone); Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Antoni Wit.
Naxos 8.570724 () (DDD) TT: 59:26.
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Beauty. Szymanowski's music went through several changes, beginning in a Straussian chromatic fog and ending up in searing clarity. This program covers many of those phases.

Penthesilea, from 1908, belongs to a fin de siècle genre -- a Hellenism which, despite its borrowings and scenery, had little to do with classical Greece. If you read writers like Wilde, Louys, and d'Annunzio, you get the impression that all people did in mythological Greece was indiscriminate humping ("with either sex at either end") mixed with S & M and bizarre slaughter. Hofmannsthal probably produced the lasting work in this vein. Over almost all of it, however, hangs a steamy atmosphere like a cloying, heavy perfume. Musically, Granville Bantock seems to me the composing poster-boy for such stuff, although Debussy's Le martyre de St. Sébastien and Strauss's Elektra probably rank as the major musical masterpieces. This sort of exoticism attracted Szymanowski for far too long, even when the locale changed from Greece to Persia, as in his Third Symphony. Penthesilea, a dramatic scena for soprano and orchestra, falls short of all these marks, but it's not terrible. In it, the queen of the Amazons confesses her love (forbidden, of course) for Achilles. Its lack of direction is its main problem. It's not particularly dramatic or revelatory of character.

Demeter (1917-24) is a different story. Szymanowski sets a sonnet by his sister Zofia on the legend of Demeter and Persephone. A distraught Demeter searches through the night for her daughter, abducted by Hades. The hothouse pong has lifted a bit, and although we still get a lush (and dramatically inapt) orchestra, Demeter's anxiety comes through.

Szymanowski was always a fine composer, but in the Twenties he became an interesting, even great one. From 1911 to 1914, he left Warsaw and its provincial, conservative music scene for Vienna and Paris. It took him a while to absorb the new Modern influences, but he eventually succeeded. Stravinsky affected him, not so much in direct idiom, but by his example of using folk sources to create something personal, rather than derivative, no matter how polished. Stravinsky seemed to allow Szymanowski to reconcile his taste for the exotic with his nationalist goals. It often happens that few turn out more exotic than one's family.

Poland for a very long time was less a nation than a culture, held together by language, art, and Catholicism. The remaining three works, despite their liturgical titles, are all original Polish poems -- the Stabat Mater and Veni Creator free paraphrases of the Latin prayers. In 1918, Poland became a formally-independent country, and this sparked even greater nationalist feeling among its writers, musicians, and artists. Szymanowski wrote his Veni Creator (1930) for the establishment of the Warsaw Academy of Music, which he headed for two years. Taking his text from a poem by Stanislaw Wypiánski (who also wrote the text of Penthesilea), Szymanowski creates something official and gorgeous at the same time. It reminds me a bit of Elgar's occasional pieces or a royal wedding procession. Duty may hang over it, but it's still stunning.

I owned at one time or another six different performances of the Stabat Mater (1926), one of the greatest works in the choral literature. I admit I've gone as gaga over it as others have over Mahler's Second. Forty years ago, when I first heard it (live performance, incidentally), it counted as a rarity outside Poland, and the only recordings were Polish ones. Now it belongs to the international repertory. Shaw and Rattle have recorded it, as have the Poles Wislocki, Stryja, and now Wit. Compared to most of the other works here, it's stripped-down and intense. It sings rapturously, brightly, painfully -- like the arrow that pierced St. Teresa's heart. Every note of it tells. Shaw and Rattle do very well indeed, but I still seem to like Poles in this work. They seem to get underneath the music more, even if the surface is rougher. Wit has made two different recordings, and I prefer this one. Litany to the Virgin Mary (1933), a very late work (the composer died in 1937 of tuberculosis), is even more spare. Frankly, I don't find much religious fervor in either, rather a deep empathy with human suffering, a worship of, if anything, the aesthetic beauty of endurance. These two works remind me of the medieval illuminated manuscripts -- simultaneously opulent and stark, fanciful and direct. Both of them sound like chorales from a savage time. They both have the inevitability of great music and never lose the power to surprise.

I've always admired Antoni Wit. He has a tough job with this program. All the music is slow. Yet with the exception of Penthesilea, he manages to hold on to your interest. The sound kind of flattens out at high volume. Naxos happens to compete directly with itself -- why, I have no idea -- an older recording of exactly the same music on 8.553687 led by Stryja. As far as I'm concerned, both achieve comparable levels, for the most part. However, soprano soloist Iwona Hossa stands out here -- a glorious, sweet, powerful sound, even if her diction isn't all it should be. That tips me to the Wit rather than to the Stryja.

S.G.S. (January 2009)