Celebrating Szymanowski (1882-1937): 75 years on

James Jolly
Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I cannot talk objectively about Szymanowski, for you cannot expect objectivity or reasonability from someone in love. And reasonability is out of place when this music is concerned…Szymanowski is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. Sir Simon Rattle

Few composers have stepped so dramatically from the shadows into the limelight in the course of the past two decades as the Pole, Karol Szymanowski. His music – richly perfumed, harmonically adventurous and imbued with the exoticism of the Southern Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East – has been championed, most loyally, by Sir Simon Rattle, and this year, the 75th anniversary of his death, finds Pierre Boulez (no less!), Valery Gergiev, Edward Gardner and Vladimir Jurowski, in the UK alone, joining the ranks of admirers of this singular and rewarding musical voice. 

The life

Born into a wealthy family in Tymoszówka, then part of the Russian Empire and now in Ukraine, Szymanowski was encouraged to follow his musical leanings and received his first lessons from his father. He was later taught at the Elizavetgrad School of Music by Gustav Neuhaus (a relative) and then at the State Conservatory in Warsaw. These years at the Conservatory coincided with the establishment of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, but far from proving the catalyst to a new outlet for new music, became a source of major disappointment to the young composers. Szymanowski, along with Grzegorz Fitelburg (later better known as a conductor), Ludomir Rózycki, Apolinary Szeluto and possibly the slightly older Mieczylsaw Karlowicz, formed a musical wing of the Polish modernist movement known as Young Poland. It thrived in the years leading up to the First World War. 

As with many of these composers (and other non-Poles of his generation), the influence of Wagner lay heavily over the earlier works, and Szymanowski continued to travel down the route of harmonic exuberance that took him to the music of Alexander Scriabin and Richard Strauss (though he never strayed into atonality). Strauss’s influence is most evident in the early (1904-5) Concert Overture, a work that comes close to sounding like a pastiche. It was premiered by the Warsaw PO in 1906 at a concert sponsored by the group’s patron, Prince Lubomirski, and was a great success – the critics were highly complimentary and publication by Universal Edition followed. 

But almost as significant in the formation of his musical voice were his travels in the first years of the 20th century in North Africa and the Middle East, as well as southern Europe and the United States. As the second decade of the 20th century dawned, the influence of Strauss – which had reached its peak with the one-act opera Hagith, written after Szymanowski’s return from two years in Vienna, and heavily indebted to Salome – gave way to that of Scriabin, and the Russian’s dreamy, heavily scented language can be heard in many of the works from the First World War – the First Violin Concerto is a perfect example of Szymanowski’s diaphanous, sensual voice. A visit to Italy and Sicily in 1911, in the company of Stefan Spiess, exposed the composer to the cultural melting-pot that left the art and society of Sicily bearing the influence of the Greek, the Roman and the Moorish – the experience would later bear fruit in the opera King Roger. Szymanowski made no secret of his attraction to men and numbered among his lovers the young Russian Boris Kochno, 18 years his junior (Kochno would later become the lover of Sergei Diaghilev and, in the 1920s, had an affair with Cole Porter). Szymanowski wrote a long novel on the subject of ‘Greek love’ and translated a chapter of it into Russian as a present for Kochno: the novel, sadly, was lost in a fire in 1939.

Another musical influence, too, entered his consciousness at about this time, the new music of France personified by Debussy and Ravel. Those war years, during which Szymanowski was effectively cut off from the world at the family estates (he avoided conscription into the Russian army due to his lameness, the result of a childhood accident to his knee), were particularly productive and saw the creation of some of his greatest works, the Love Songs of Hafiz, the Third Symphony (Song of the Night), the First Violin Concerto, the Mythes for violin and piano, the Songs of the Fairy-Tale Princess, and the Métopes and Masques for solo piano.

The 1917 Revolution marked a major watershed in Szymanowski’s life: his family lost its estates and they moved to the nearby town of Elizavetgrad. It was in the two years following the Revolution that Szymanowski suffered a crisis of belief in his role as a composer and all but abandoned music for writing: it was during this period that he wrote his novel of gay love The Ephebe. And from the experience of working on the novel, the opera King Roger would begin to emerge. He worked on the libretto with his cousin Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz. It’s a distillation of the issues – Dionysian versus Apollonian – that underpin Euripedes’s The Bacchae, but reset in the medieval Sicilian kingdom of King Roger. Roger, a rather wan figure, is lured away – but not before his wife and subjects have surrendered – by a handsome young shepherd who promises them a new religion built on sensuality and emotional and spiritual freedom. But in the nick of time – and interestingly Szymanowski reworked the closing act, executing a surprising volte-face to Iwaszkiewicz’s original ending – Roger returns to the Apollonian fold and the curtain is brought down on a glorious hymn to the sun (though the music is still ripe with Dionysian bloom). 

King Roger is Szymanowski’s most ambitious work, and it’s good to see it working its way into the repertoire, albeit slowly – the anniversary this year will no doubt provide the impetus for more productions, and with star baritones such as Mariusz Kwiecien devoted advocates of the role, its short-term future appears to be secure. It contains some glorious music, and the aria sung by Roger’s wife Rozanna has broken free and taken on a concert life of its own. It’s been lucky on disc, too, with a handful of fine recordings, and an intriguing DVD taken from Bregenz (more below). 

Karol Szymanowski belonged to that generation of composers – alongside George Enescu (1881-1955), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) – for whom the folk music of their native countries provided a powerful inspiration. In his youth, he’d studiously avoided drawing on any specifically ‘folk’ idioms, but in the 1920s – maybe as part of a post-war Zeitgeist – he started to explore the music of Poland’s Tatra Mountains. And, just as Stravinsky subsumed a folk element into his ballet scores yet managed to remain totally ‘Stravinsky’, so Szymanowski fused his own voice with something more elemental. And Stravinsky was an important influence here, particular through his use of folk tunes in the ballet Petrushka, as well as more overtly ‘primitive’ works like Les noces and Pribaoutki. (Szymanowski saw quite a bit of Stravinsky during this period, often with his friend, the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, in Paris, London and New York.)

The loss of the family estates, and Szymanowski’s straitened financial circumstances following the Russian Revolution, had the effect of making him essentially homeless: for the remainder of his life he didn’t have a house of his own. So early in the 1930s he rented a house in what had become an artists' colony, Zakopane (his house there, Villa Atma, is now the Szymanowski Museum, and was designed in the traditional style of the region by the celebrated Polish architect Stanislaw Witkiewicz). Here, in the extraordinarily beautiful surroundings of southern Poland, and the centre of Góral culture, Szymanowski and other artists (working in different media) enjoyed an atmosphere that fostered creativity. The works from this period include the Second Violin Concerto, the Fourth Symphony (or Sinfonia concertante with its major role for solo piano, dedicated to Rubinstein) and the ballet-pantomime Harnasie, one of the composer's finest absorptions of folk music into his idiom (and one of his most successful works during his own lifetime with a premiere in Prague to choreography by Serge Lifar). It is set in the Tatra Mountains and is based on a scenario by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, librettist of the opera King Roger.

Late in Szymanowski's life, his precarious finances forced him to take a job for the first time: he accepted the post of rector of the Warsaw Academy of Music. It was not a successful move: he lacked the forceful nature necessary to ride the politics of running such an insititution and while he was popular with the students, he was essentially forced out after only a couple of years. His health, too, was beginning to suffer: the tuberculosis that would finally end his life was starting to take hold of him. As his music slowly achieved international attention – Harnasie would be performed at the Paris Opera in 1936 – his health declined and he died in a sanatorium in Switzerland on March 24, 1937, 75 years ago this year. 

Szymanowski is one of those composers, like Busoni and Enescu, who occupy a place just outside the continuum of music history, a gorgeous tributary to the main river – and one who rewards those prepared to take the time to explore. Performances and recordings of his music are now, thankfully, frequent and this year, I hope, will see him firmly established in the repertoire.

Click 'Next' below for Essential Szymanowski Recordings and concert recommendations

Essential recordings (with links to Amazon.co.uk)

The 'one-stop box'

Sir Simon Rattle's CBSO recordings have been gathered together in an unmissable EMI collection that contains all Szymanowski's key works with orchestra. Notable are the two violin concertos in Thomas Zehetmair's Gramophone Award-winning performances, Leif Ove Andsnes in the Fourth Symphony, the opera King Roger and various versions of the song-cycles (usually with Polish singers). Rattle's passion for this music shines through every bar, and if you're new to this composer, you simply can't do better. (The two violin concertos and Symphony No 4 are, incidentally, also available as a separate issue, if you're hesitating about taking such a major immersion in the Szymanowski sound world.)

Violin Concertos

As well as the Thomas Zehetmair/Rattle versions (discussed above), consider Lydia Mordkovitch (on Chandos) with Vassily Sinaisky a subtle partner, almost in the Rattle league – and Chandos's recording 'house style' might have been made for this music. Another superb version comes from Frank Peter Zimmermann with the Warsaw PO and Antoni Wit on Sony Classical: they capture the perfumed world of the First Concerto gloriously…as does Christian Tetzlaff on DG – one of my favourite violinists when it comes to 20th-century fare – and Boulez and the VPO are on top form (it's still amazing to think of Boulez conducting Szymanowski!). Naxos offers a compelling alternative – again with Wit and the Warsaw PO – with Ilya Kaler as soloist: he's a slightly less ethereal player than some, but there's an indefinable idiomatic 'rightness' about the performances that's hard to resist. And don't overlook Arabella Steinbacher on Pentatone in No 1 – truly exquisite playing and wonderfully partnered by Marek Janowski and the Berlin RSO. 

The symphonies

As well as the Rattle set, there are superb – and gloriously idiomatic – performances from Antoni Wit and the Warsaw PO on Naxos (and you can also get Nos 3 and 4 on DVD in live performances from 2009 on ICA Classics Live). Rather like the LSO in Elgar, the Warsaw PO in Szymanowski bring something special to their own music. I'd suggest starting with the Naxos CD of Nos 2 and 3 which allows you to hear Szymanowski's music language really blooming. Don't overlook Pierre Boulez's 2010 DG account of the Third Symphony with tenor Steve Davislim a near-perfect soloist. The Vienna Philharmonic's natural opulence is perfect for this music and Boulez extracts colours from the orchestra that make the head spin. One caveat, though! This is one of those packages, complete with (albeit fascinating) interviews with Boulez (the one in French, not surprisingly, is best), but it can be pricey (£20) so do shop around (the download is a more economical alternative!). 

King Roger

Rattle's wonderfully committed recording, with Thomas Hampson on top form as Roger, is available in the complete Rattle Szymanowski and also individually (though it costs more than the larger set). It's vividly recorded and very stylishly produced. If you want some more Polish zest, consider the Naxos version: it's swings and roundabouts with some very fine impressive singers and one or two that need 'beefing' up a bit (the Shepherd is weak on both sets). If you want to feast the eyes as well as the ears, there's a Bregenz Festival production (David Pountney) with Sir Mark Elder in the pit. The drawback is that it's a pretty static approach to a piece that needs some vivid visual stimulation…


As well as Rattle’s wonderfully vivid performance, Naxos offers a terrific and idiomatic account from the indefatigable Antoni Wit and his Warsaw PO. It’s coupled with Mandragora, a slighter work and rather episodic (not surprisingly as it was conceived as incidental music). 

String quartets & chamber music

Like the two violin concertos, Szymanowski’s two string quartets date from the First World War and then much later, and in the musical language they are as different as the two concertos: No 1 perfumed and looking towards France, No 2 enriched by folk elements and rhythmic vitality. There are quite a few fine alternatives. Personal favourites are the Royal Quartet on Hyperion, who are simply fabulous, offering numerous subtle gradations of colour and texture. Naxos brings us the Goldner Quartet, another beautifully conceived pair of performances, and don’t overlook another budget version, the Carmina Quartet on Dal Segno (formerly on Denon), wonderful elegant playing and recorded with great fidelity. Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien confirm their complete musical sympathy in the collected music for violin and piano on Hyperion – a beautiful disc. And I can’t ignore Krystian Zimerman and Kaja Danczowska on DG in the three Mythes and Kochanski’s arrangement of Roxanna’s aria from King Roger (coupled with a very fine account of the Franck sonata). Don’t overlook, either, the two volumes of piano and violin music offered on Dux and played by Piotr Plawner.

Piano music

A brand-new disc from DG finds the young Polish player, Rafal Blechasz, on terrific form in the First Piano Sonata and the Prelude and Fugue in C minor (coupled with piano works by Debussy). His playing is both authoritative and poetic. On Virgin Classics, Piotr Anderszewski offers the Third Piano Sonata, the Métopes and the Masques: this is another essential Szymanowski recording, stylistically exquisitely attuned and marrying heart, head and fingers to terrific effect. A recording to cherish. Joanna Domanska, too, brings great style to the piano works on a couple of Dux discs.

Stabat mater

Rattle includes a fine performance in the EMI set, but there are some splendid alternatives: Antoni Wit (Naxos) directs a hugely impressive performance with a real sense of atmosphere. Robert Shaw (Telarc), not surprisingly, extracts terrific choral work from his Atlanta Chorus; as does Valery Polyansky working with his Russian State Symphonic Capella (on Chandos and coupled with the Third Symphony). There’s another version from Antoni Wit on Dux that’s also worth exploring.


Szymanowski live in concert and at the opera

April 29, Barbican, London / May 1, Salle Pleyel, Paris / May 4, Bozar, Brussels

Violin Concerto No 1 Christian Tetzlaff (vn) LSO / Pierre Boulez


May 2, Salle Pleyel, Paris / May 3, Bozar, Brussels / May 8, Barbican, London

Symphony No 3, ‘Song of the Night’

Steve Davislim (ten) LSO and Chorus / Pierre Boulez


July 21 & 25. August 3, 9 & 14. Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico

King Roger

Mariusz Kwiecien (Roger) William Burden (Shepherd) Denis Petersen (Edrisi) Erin Morley (Roxanna) Santa Fe Opera Orchestra / Evan Rogister


September 22, Barbican, London

Violin Concerto No 1, Symphony No 1

Janine Jansen (vn) LSO / Valery Gergiev


September 23, Barbican, London

Symphony No 2

LSO / Valery Gergiev


September 23, Barbican, London (10am-5pm)

Szymanowski study day with access to Gergiev's rehearsal, and chamber music events at St Luke's and at the Barbican.


October 11, Barbican, London

Violin Concerto No 1

Janine Jansen (vn) LSO / Valery Gergiev


October 13, Barbican, London

Symphony No 2 

LSO / Valery Gergiev


December 11 & 18, Barbican, London

Symphony No 3, 'Song of the Night'

LSO & Chorus / Valery Gergiev


December 12 & 19, Barbican, London

Symphony No 4, Sinfonia concertante, Violin Concerto No 2

Denis Matsuev (pf) Leonidas Kavakos (vn) LSO / Valery Gergiev

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