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ClassicsOnline Home » SZYMANOWSKI, K.: Harnasie / Mandragora / Prince Potemkin: Incidental Music to Act V (Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit)
Multiple prize-winner and Grammy award nominee for several of his Naxos recordings, Antoni Wit is one of today’s most highly regarded Polish conductors, an ideal interpreter of the exotic, colourfully scored music of Karol Szymanowski, described by Sir Simon Rattle as “one of the greatest composers of this century”. The ballet-pantomime Harnasie and the incidental music for Prince Potemkin both draw on the folk-music of the people of the Tatra Mountains, while the ballet Mandragora was composed for a production of Molière’s comedy Le bourgeois gentilhomme.
By David Denton
Continuing this series of Szymanowski’s symphonic music that is setting new standards by which all others will be measured, Antoni Wit with his magnificent Warsaw Philharmonic now perform two great ballet scores. Harnasie came late in his life being completed in 1931, just two years before the Second Violin Concerto, his last orchestral score. It was described as a ballet-pantomime and tells of the abduction of a bride on her wedding day by the robber-band, Harnasie, and was a highly animated and dramatic piece including parts for tenor and chorus. Its fusion of so many styles, including traditional folk music, was to quickly win the score favour in Central European theatres. The somewhat shorter Mandragora started out life as the interlude in the third act of Moliere’s play, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Though written at much the same time, it is very different in style, and akin to Stravinsky’s Petrushka, its mix of comedy and grotesquerie creating a piquant score. Left only in manuscript at his death, Prince Potemkin, was intended as incidental music for Tadeusz Micinski’s play by that name. Good but not a major work. The playing is superb throughout, the subtle details that the Warsaw orchestra can produce is very special. Antoni Wit’s exact attention to dynamics goes beyond the call of duty, and the magical textures he obtains takes these performances way out of reach of rival recordings. He has a fine tenor in the long established Wieslaw Ochman, but I draw your attention to the young tenor, Alexander Pinderak, whose atmospheric appearances in Mandragora are very special. Transparent, lucid, ideally balanced sound rounds off a fabulous disc.
Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937):
Harnasie (Ballet-Pantomime) Op. 55
Mandragora (Pantomime) Op. 43
Prince Potemkin, Incidental Music to Act V, Op. 51
Karol Szymanowski was born at Tymoszówka in the Kiev District of the Ukraine in 1882, the son of a Polish land-owner and of a mother of Swedish extraction, born Baroness Anna Taube. The family and their immediate circle had a deep interest in the arts, a fact reflected in the subsequent careers of the five children of the marriage as musicians, poets or painters. Karol’s sister Stanisława later became a singer and his brother Feliks a pianist. Szymanowski’s early education was at home, since a leg injury at the age of four prevented him from attending school in the neighbouring town of Elisavetgrad (the modern Kirowograd), where, nevertheless, he had music lessons from a relative, Gustav Neuhaus, who had a school there. In 1901 he went to Warsaw to continue his musical studies, taking lessons from the composer Zygmunt Noskowski in counterpoint and composition and from M. Zawirski in harmony.
The feelings of Polish nationalism that had inspired Chopin and his contemporaries continued through the nineteenth century, exacerbated by the repressive measures taken by Russia, in particular, in the face of open revolt. Warsaw in 1901, however, remained as provincial as it had been in the time of Chopin, who had sought his musical fortune abroad in Paris in 1830. The century had seen Polish performers of the greatest distinction, particularly the violinists Lipiński and Wieniawski. The opera composer Stanisław Moniuszko, however, a rival to Chopin in his own country, enjoyed only a local reputation, while his successors, in Szymanowski’s esteem, occupied a still lower place. Polish music was to a great extent isolated and provincial, a reflection of the society in which it existed. The new century, however, brought together a group of young musicians of much wider outlook, a circle that included the pianist Artur Rubinstein, the violinist Pawel Kochański and the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg. The last named, the composer Ludomir Różycki and the pianist and composer Apolinary Szeluto, together with Szymanowski, established under the patronage of Prince Władysław Lubomirski the Young Poland in Music group, for the publication and promotion of new Polish music. Fitelberg, by training a violinist and composer, made his later career as a conductor, and directed the first concert of the group in Warsaw in 1906, when Szymanowski’s Concert Overture was performed. He won later distinction as conductor at the Vienna Staatsoper and in work for the Russian impresario Dyagilev, before returning to direct the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and, from 1947, the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. Kochański’s support was to prove invaluable, particularly in the composition of the first of Szymanowski’s two violin concertos and in a number of works written for violin and piano. Rubinstein, who, like Kochański, made his later career in the United States of America, proved an additional champion of Szymanowski, while Paderewski, a musician of more conservative tendency, assisted in the wider dissemination of Szymanowski’s piano music, favouring especially the famous B flat minor Study, a work that owes much of its popularity to his advocacy.
The first Young Poland concert in Warsaw had included performances of Szymanowski’s Variations on a Polish Folk Theme and his Study in B flat minor, played by the pianist Harry Neuhaus, and had been well enough received. Berlin, however, proved much less interested, when Fitelberg conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a similar programme in the same year. Szymanowski spent the following two years principally in Berlin and Leipzig, absorbing still further the influence of Wagner, of Reger and of Richard Strauss, composers of whom he later took a cooler view. This period saw the composition of his Symphony No. 1 in F minor, completed in 1907 and given its first performance in Warsaw two years later. The composer subsequently withdrew the symphony and went so far as to destroy the 1907 piano trio, sensing what seemed to him the excessive influence of the post-Wagnerian, a reflection of a predominant aspect of music of the time in Germany. The following years brought periods at home in the Ukraine and abroad. He wrote his Penthesilea, Opus 18, an orchestral work with soprano solo derived from the Achilleis of the contemporary Polish painter and dramatist Stanisław Wyspiański, in Italy in 1908, and in 1910 completed a very different Symphony No. 2 in B flat, Opus 19, a work in which the influence of Skryabin is noticeable, as it is in the piano music of this period. The new symphony, played under Fitelberg in Warsaw in 1911, proved unacceptable to both audience and critics, but won acclaim in Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna, establishing the international importance of the composer. Szymanowski determined, after this experience, to live, at least for a time, in Vienna, where Fitelberg was now employed at the Staatsoper, and where he reached an agreement with Universal to publish his work.
Vienna proved less stimulating than Szymanowski had hoped, but the period changed to some extent his musical outlook, particularly through his experience of the music of Debussy and, still more, of Ravel, and of the Dyagilev company in Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petrushka. In March 1914 he left Vienna and travelled south to Italy, Sicily and North Africa, returning through Rome, Paris and London, where he met Stravinsky. The war years he spent in musical isolation at home at Tymoszówka, turning his attention to a study of Greek civilisation and literature, to the early history of Christianity and to the culture of Islam, the last an extension of an interest aroused by translations of the poems of Hafiz by Hans Bethge, poet of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, some of which he had set to music in 1911, and exemplified in the remarkable Symphony No. 3, completed in 1916, using poems by the 13th century Persian mystic and poet Mevlânâ Jalāl ad-Dīn ar-Rûmi.
The Russian revolution put an end to Szymanowski’s period of war-time seclusion. The family was compelled to move, for reasons of safety, to Elisavetgrad, and the property at Tymoszówka was destroyed by the revolutionaries. In 1919 they moved to Poland, after the proclamation of the new republic. Kochański and Rubinstein prudently chose to settle in the United States, but Szymanowski determined to stay in his own country and to seek there a further source of inspiration, particularly in the more primitive aspects of indigenous music. His reputation grew at home and abroad, and in 1927 he rejected the offer of a position as director of the conservatory in Cairo in favour of the financially less rewarding position of director of the Warsaw Conservatory, which in 1930 became the Warsaw Academy of Music, an institution of which he remained rector until his resignation in 1932.
The five years that Szymanowski spent at the Conservatory and the Academy brought many frustrations, particularly in dealing with musicians of a conservative turn of mind, and these difficulties finally led to his resignation. The remaining years of his life were not easy, without any regular source of income, and he therefore made more public appearances as a performer, writing the piano part of his Symphony No. 4 in 1932 to suit his own relatively modest piano technique, no longer adequate for the more taxing compositions of his earlier career. In the same year he was greatly encouraged by the performance in Prague of his opera King Roger, a work that deals imaginatively with a struggle in medieval Sicily between Christianity and an Eastern Dionysian religion, a further example of his absorption of the essence of other cultures than his own, and of his reading of Euripides.
Szymanowski’s final years were clouded by illness and he sought an alleviation of the effects of tuberculosis abroad in Davos, Grasse and Cannes, and finally in Lausanne, where he died on 29 March 1937. His last orchestral work was the Second Violin Concerto, completed in 1933, followed by two Mazurkas for piano, written in the following year.
The ballet-pantomime Harnasie, based on the story of the abduction of a bride on her wedding-day by Harnás and his robber band, the Harnasie, and on music of the mountain Tatra people, won success in Prague in 1935, and with new choreography by Serge Lifar was well received in Paris the following year. It was staged in Hamburg in 1937 with choreography by Helga Swedlund and became part of Polish ballet repertoire only in 1938, when it was staged in Poznań. The work was written between 1923 and 1931 to a scenario provided, it seems, by Jerzy Rytard and his wife, their names omitted from the first programme, and by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, librettist of the opera King Roger. In 1921 Szymanowski visited Zakopane, a health resort in the Tatra mountains, and there studied the rich folk-music and folk-dance of the Górals, the inhabitants of the region, to which his attention had been drawn by the folk-music collector Adolf Chybiński. His interest in the region continued and he rented a house there until 1936, when circumstances forced him to relinquish it. The ballet score Harnasie makes full use of the folk-music that Szymanowski heard, presented with all the richness of his imagination and including original elements deriving their inspiration from the primitive music of the mountain people, with its irregular accentuation and vigorous character.
The short ballet Mandragora was designed for inclusion in the third act of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, the pretext of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. A pantomime in three scenes designed for the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, the piece was staged there in June 1920. It is in the form of a commedia dell’arte intermezzo in which a bored King and Queen are entertained by the court eunuch with episodes from Columbine, Harlequin, the Doctor and the Captain, and finally Monsieur Jourdain himself. The work contains strong elements of musical parody, while not without the overt influence of Stravinsky, whose Petrushka had so impressed Szymanowski when he saw the ballet in 1913. Szymanowski had immediately bought the piano score, since he found the work, with its essential Slav character, coincided very much with his own musical inclinations at the time.
In 1925, after the completion of King Roger, Szymanowski wrote incidental music for the fifth act of Prince Potemkin, a play by Tadeusz Miciński. This was not the first collaboration with the poet. Miciński, associated with the Young Poland movement, appealed particularly to the composer and his interest in the esoteric and oriental may have influenced Szymanoswki in King Roger. In 1904–5 he had set four poems by Miciński, another of whose poems provided the literary inspiration for the Concert Overture, Op. 12. In 1909 he set poems from Miciński’s In the Darkness of Stars and his Violin Concerto of 1916 again draws on Miciński, the fantasy of his May Night, while the text for his Third Symphony made use of translations from the Persian by the same writer. The music for Prince Potemkin, left in manuscript at Szymanowski’s death, makes use again of a version of a Tatra folk-tune, here transformed for an evocative dramatic purpose in music that has a valid existence apart from the play for which it was originally written.
The script of Harnasie is a kind of mythological generalization of highland culture—the plot is symbolic, the characters have no names, they are simply “the Girl”, “the Shepherd”, “the Robber”. The ballet comprises three tableaux—the third one is an epilogue, and Szymanowski was unsure what its character should be. Ultimately, he expanded the final scene of tableau two ending the work, giving the dancers the opportunity to show off their skills in a spectacular third tableau. Tableau I—In the Mountain Pasture—begins with the redyk (driving the sheep). One of the girls meets a highland stranger whom she later recognizes as a harnas—a robber. He confesses his love for her. Tableau II is the Girl’s wedding. At the climax of the wedding fun, the highland robbers burst in—the stranger abducts the bride. Tableau III shows the lovers in a mountain pasture deep in the mountains, among the robbers.
Read more about Harnasie on the Polish Information Centre’s website http://www.culture.pl/en/culture/artykuly/dz_szymanowski_harnasie, from which this synopsis has been excerpted.
We regret that we are unable to include the sung texts for copyright reasons.
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