Born in 1882, and regarded as the most significant Polish composer after Chopin, Szymanowski produced a relatively small but extremely fine oeuvre including four symphonies, two violin concertos, a modest amount of chamber and piano music, and four stage works, including the magnificent and haunting opera King Roger. His middle period is usually referred to as impressionist, and shows the influence of Ravel’s orchestral virtuosity and Scriabin’s piquant harmony subordinated to a personal and intense musical vision. It is therefore a surprise that Pierre Boulez, the great conductor of Ravel and Debussy, is recording Szymanowski for the first time on this new disc from DG. The two works he has chosen for this first outing, the First Violin Concerto and the Third Symphony, are almost certainly Szymanowksi’s greatest and most distinctive works, and Boulez’ readings of them are mature, thoughtful, and convincing. The solo part in the Violin Concerto, on which the violinist Paul Kochanski collaborated with the composer, is terrifyingly exposed and stratospheric, almost never descending into the violin’s lower range, and Christian Tetzlaff plays it with both bravura and thoughtfulness. Although the work is usually characterised as having a featherweight transparency of texture, Boulez’ reading introduces a fascinating hint of earthiness, as if anticipating Szymanowski’s later, more folk-music influenced works.
The Third Symphony employs a chorus and a solo voice, sometimes a soprano but more often (and more authentically) a tenor, and on this recording Australian Steve Davislim takes the honours. Formally, Szymanowski eschews the traditional multi-movement symphonic form, preferring to allow the text by the Persian poet Rumi to direct the unfolding, and effectively continuous, architecture. Although still regarded as impressionist, the opulent textures and deep expressivity of the symphony make it among the great works of the early 20thcentury.
Previously, the performances of Szymanowski’s works that have touched me most deeply have been Polish; despite the shortcomings of the orchestral playing, there is a timbral and emotional authenticity to performances by, say, Antoni Wit on Naxos (8570721), that seems to be lacking in many non-Polish performances—for example, Simon Rattle and the CBSO on EMI Great Recordings of the Century (3615922). Boulez, however, seems to have succeeded in capturing the mysterious Szymanowski sound, and I found this recording utterly beguiling.