Exoticism –The Music of Karol Szymanowski

Earlier this summer I let someone pick the play I saw, observing how it’s valuable to let someone else choose what one will see and/or hear.  We circumscribe ourselves with our menu choices, our viewing habits, our purchases, boxing ourselves in through a series of assumptions based on our past experiences with a broad class of choices, such as “pastry”, “Russian piano music” or “dance-theatre”.

Sometimes our beliefs are vitally important (for instance, to avoid food past its best-before date).  But how often are preferences a matter of life and death?  Rarely.

Today’s adventure was Exoticism—The Music of Karol Szymanowski, a new CD from Marquis Classics, pairing violinist Jerzy Kaplanek with pianist Stéphan Sylvestre.

I don’t know Szymanowski.  While I’ve heard good things about his opera King Roger –a work that’s produced rarely—I don’t know this composer’s voice.   My preamble is another way of saying that I wish I had investigated Szymanowski’s music sooner and that I feel embarrassed to admit this.  I’d like to think I am a voracious reader, listener, player, and yes, recalling the meaning of the word when it’s not just a metaphor, eater.  While I pride myself on broad musical taste (hip hop, country, classical, opera, music-theatre, operetta, contemporary church music, old-time hymn-tunes…you name it), clearly Szymanowki somehow fell through the cracks of my prejudices & choices.

As I listened to the disc I tried to understand why the composer isn’t better known.  The title of the CD is—pardon my French—weak. Is that perhaps part of the problem, that the conventional musicological wisdom has never properly appreciated the breadths of Szymanowki?  Are we listening to “Exoticism” on this CD, or romanticism…? Or something else?  I am reminded of my delight in listening to Poulenc earlier this year, another composer who doesn’t fit into any neat category.  Pigeon-holes just don’t work for any decent composer of the past hundred years.

Ah but maybe that “exotic” title choice is a reflection of how difficult it is to understand Szymanowski, how challenging to market this composer so deserving of being better known.  I feel sympathy for the person coining the name, and indeed, sympathy for anyone marketing this wonderful record.  I can’t help feeling a bit of the pride that any Pole (such as our violinist Kaplanek) must have for Szymanowski, a composer whose importance is surely about to rise, as people get to know him better.

The CD might explain my bewilderment, music of varied styles (for violin & piano):

  • Sonata in D minor Op 9
  • Nocturne and Tarentella
  • “Roxane’s Song” from King Roger, transcribed for violin & piano
  • Mythes
  • Prelude, transcribed for violin & piano

The concluding Prelude reminds me of an adventurous Chopin in its lyricism.  The Sonata sounds more genuinely 20th Century but with the boldness of an Eastern European virtuoso (thinking of Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich or Bartók).  The rhythmic vigour of the Nocturne & Tarentella suggest other slavs and their culture.  The Mythes evoke their subjects, as identified in the titles of the three movements: “La Fontaine d’Arethuse”, “Narcisse” and finally “Dryades et Pan”.  I am sure it’s no coincidence that the titles are in French, given the echoes one hears of Ravel or Debussy; but in fairness the Mythes are phenomenal jewels and in no way derivative or imitative. They’re the likely inspiration for the title “Exoticism”.

Violinist Jerzy Kaplanek

Violinist Jerzy Kaplanek is well-served by this recording, capturing his rapturous playing, wonderfully idiomatic.  I did observe that he’s treating Szymanowski as a modern, omitting the schmaltzy portmantos one gets from violinists such as Isaac Stern or David Oistrakh (that is, artists from earlier generations).  Glorious as his sound is, t times I believe the balance feels a bit too generous to the violin, considering how complex Stéphan Sylvestre’s piano part is in the Mythes, as though he were merely accompanist and not a proper collaborative pianist; but then again maybe it’s just my pianistic prejudices showing, Szymanowski’s piano writing sounding wonderfully original.

We really need to listen to more Szymanowski, a composer who—like Bartók– sometimes displays folk influences, sometimes the lure of the virtuoso impulse, sometimes something more complex and ambiguous.  And like Bartók, Szymanowki died young, when he surely had a great deal more to offer.

This new Marquis disc deserves to be heard.  I am persuaded.  I love Szymanowki, and am thrilled with the interpretations from Kaplanek & Sylvestre.

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