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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Two Fine Symphonies Worth Your Exploration

Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)

Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1911) [34:38]

Symphony No. 3, Op. 27 (Song of the Night) (1916) [26:10]

Ryszard Minkiewicz, (tenor)

Ewa Marczyk (solo violin)

Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra

Antoni Wit

Recorded at the Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw, Poland, 16-19 April 2007

NAXOS 8.570721 [60:48]

Karol Szymanowsky was born in modern day Ukraine. A childhood leg injury prevented him from attending school as a child and he received his education, both musical and otherwise, at home. He and his four siblings would go on to be prominent musicians, poets and artists. As a young man he studied in Warsaw and in Berlin. It was in Warsaw that his Polish identity (his father was Polish and his mother was of Swedish extraction) would come to the fore. He would go on to become a prominent member of Young Poland in Music, a group dedicated to the creation and promotion of modern Polish music.

The Second Symphony is cast in three sections. The first movement is lengthy and rhapsodic. Opening with a yearning violin solo ably played by Ewa Marczyk, this is music that is packed with contrasts; at times lush and romantic, at others packed with stinging dissonance. Harmonically it is reminiscent of Mahler, but with a more compact and to the point formal structure. The second movement is a clever theme and variations and the final movement is a complex fugue. The Warsaw Philharmonic acquits itself well in this music with some outstanding playing from the horn section. Antoni Wit leads a well paced performance, coaxing a warm and rich tone from his string section.

The Third Symphony again relies on a sophisticated violin solo, but Szymanowski also adds a full chorus and a tenor soloist to set a thirteenth century song in praise of the night. The large orchestral forces and the wall of sound coming from the chorus remind us a bit of Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder. Szymanowski ventures further afield harmonically in this work than in the earlier symphony, with more reliance on biting dissonances. The weak link here is tenor Ryszard Minkiewicz, whose voice possesses all the necessary heft in the loud passages, but lacks in subtlety when he is required to sing softly. There are moments when we are left wondering if he will be able to sustain the high soft notes without cracking. The Warsaw Philharmonic Chorus is a fine ensemble, with a warm blended tone that does not short out in the loudest passages.

Of the two symphonies, I found the earlier work to be the most satisfying. As often seems to happen when voices are added to compositions called “symphonies,” the structural integrity of the music tends to weaken and we are left with a somewhat rambling soundscape. This seems to happen in the latter work. Nonetheless, this is a recommendable recording, especially for the virtuosity of the Warsaw Philharmonic as displayed in the Symphony No. 2.

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