Few have done more to bring Szymanowski’s music into the popular mainstream than Simon Rattle, the CBSO and EMI Classics. Rattle’s approach has been to immerse himself in the composer’s work completely, to capture the composer’s visionary sound world on a deep intuitive level. Rattle’s feel for Szymanowski is so personal and so individual that whatever he has to express in the music is worth listening to. Indeed, there’s hardly any serious competition, despite the best efforts of companies that record cover versions. Rattle and EMI created the audience for this music in the first place.

Twenty years ago I happened on a television documentary about Szymanowski. Until then just an obscure name to me, a composer associated with virtuoso piano pieces, deprecatingly compared to Chopin. The documentary made a case for the composer on a much grander scale, with a complex individual personality of his own. Szymanowski’s roots were in a pre-First World War eastern Europe that no longer exists after decades of partition, war and ethnic upheaval. Perhaps it is the sense of inexplicable nostalgia that makes his music interesting. Or perhaps in the twenty-first century, we can identify with a cosmopolitan individual who acknowledged his roots and yet was truly “European” in the widest sense.

Exotic themes have long been a long tradition in European thought: Goethe’sWest-ostlicherstlicher Divanexplored “Persian” poetry, a genre later taken up enthusiastically by poets like Heyse and Bethge. The French, who had a bigger empire than the Germans, also became fascinated. Japanese art, for example, influenced the Impressionists. Musicians like Debussy, Delage and Ravel absorbed alien idioms into music. Perhaps they gave a European artist freedom to experiment beyond conventional European forms.

Szymanowski spent the first months of 1914 travelling – Tunis, Algeria and Constantinople, the returning to Paris to hear Debussy. Weeks after, war broke out, and he returned to his country estate atTymoszowka, in the Polish part of the Ukraine. The Hafiz songs, to poems by Hans Bethge, are still redolent of an elegantfin de siècleromanticism. The voice part is decorated with trills and melisma. Katarina Karnéus sings effortlessly, her legato beautifully extended to capture the mood of sensuous refinement. It seems, as the text says “as perfumed as a rose garden”. There are some wonderful effects, like the complex background toHafiz’s Grave, where half-tones seem to shimmer and dance, perhaps like light playing on water, a classic Persian image of paradise. Passages for solo violin and flute add to the air of nostalgia for what is, ultimately, only an illusion. Shortly after writing these songs, Szymanowski wrote hisThird Symphony, for orchestra, chorus and solo voice, set to words by a 13thcentury Persian poet. From this fertile period also came masterpieces likeKrol Roger, perhaps the composer’s best known work. The recording, by Rattle, with Hampson in the lead role is outstanding. There’s of course a later cover version on Naxos, but the Rattle version is more compelling.

It’s interesting to listen to theSongs of a Fairytale Princessin this context. The original piano and voice pieces were written in 1915, but the composer picked three of them to orchestrate towards the end of his composing life, as if he were bringing his early work up to date. The orchestrations add a lot, expanding the songs into miniature symphonies.

Violin and flute solos add a mysterious and atmospheric touch, framing the coloratura vocalise. Sobotka is relatively young but she is perfectly at ease negotiating the composer’s tricky turns of phrase and intonation. Her pure, clean tones elide the trills and melisma with elegant grace. When she sings lines like “mi go zal” (ist mir so leid) , unaccompanied and alone, she breathes an earthy personality into the words, enhancing their meaning, even if you don’t understand a word of Polish. She has recorded the complete Szymanowski songs with the superlative young tenor, Piotr Beczala and others, so she, too, has a claim to being immersed in the composer’s idiom. Indeed, in the second song, Slowik (Nightingale), she creates a truly mysterious atmosphere, turning the elaborate vocalise into an almost abstract meditation.

The centre-piece of this recording, however is the balletHarnasieop 55. Ballet music creates constraints in that a composer has to write to illustrate whatever will be happening on stage. Szymanowski creates the “scenery” with quite distinctly atmospheric music, evoking in sound images which might describe the wild mountain fastnesses of the Tatras. Certainly you can hear whips cracking and horses prancing, if you’re so inclined.

Ballet music is supposed to illustrate, after all. When the choir appears, it’s like an explosion, so striking is the scoring. There are sections here which seem to glow with colour, even without the visual element of ballet. Rattle plays these up for all they are worth, for they are meant to be dramatic and uncompromising. The burst of cymbals that heralds the kidnap is all the more striking for being followed by spare, minimal writing. Then the voice of the tenor, Timothy Robinson, rises out in the distance, as if he were singing from the mountain top.

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