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
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,
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.
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)