INKPOT#100 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: SZYMANOWSKI Symphony No.3. Stabat Mater. Litany of the Virgin Mary. Various/CBSO/Rattle (EMI)
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Symphony No. 3, op. 27 “Song of the Night”
Stabat Mater, op. 53
Litania do Marii Panny, op. 59Jon Garrison tenor
Peter Thomas violin
Elzbieta Szmytka soprano (op.53 & 59)
Florence Quivar mezzo-soprano (op 53)
John Connell bass (op.53)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
conducted by (Sir) Simon Rattle
EMI Classics 5 55121-2
Includes Polish libretto with translations in English, German and French.
by Michael Anthonio
Szymanowski’s single-movement Symphony No. 3, subtitled “Song of the Night”, was composed between 1914 and 1916,and it was premiered in London on 26 November 1921 by the London Symphony Orchestra under Albert Coates. It is one of the composer’s most important works, and, together with the two other pieces in this CD, it shows how religious Szymanowski was.
Unlike usual symphonies, the “Song of the Night” resembles a huge cantata. It is a great work, and its requirements are indeed huge: a tenor, chorus and a large orchestra. More appropriately called “Magical Night” or “Mystical Night” (at least for me), it describes the night, and how in it one can acknowledge God.
The text is based on the Polish translation of the thirteen-century Persian Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi’s poem, and the music is full of exotic effects. Not surprisingly it is also influenced by Szymanowski’s love of Arabian music, which can be strongly felt in some parts.
Although it is cast in a single movement, there are actually three parts in it. The first part begins with a single non-diatonic chord over a C pedal, and then the violins start to teasingly play their melody, with an effect not unlike what we might imagine as an Indian snake-charmer’s song. This exotic passage gives way to the entrance of the solo tenor and the chorus. The solo violin takes over before the re-entry of the chorus (and the tenor), leading to a climax.
After a brief transition, the second part begins. The solo violin dominates while the (wordless) chorus and orchestra contributes to the wonderful background. In the middle, this alternates with an extended scherzando section. This part comes to the end with several solos.
The third part is the heart of the work. It begins with a hushed solo tenor singing “Jak cicho. Inni spia Ja i Bg jestesmy sami nocy tej!” (“Such quiet, others sleep I and God alone together in this night!”). Then, gradually the music builds up to a final climax. After that, several solos take over, before the solo tenor sings the closing line.
This recording of the symphony is truly marvelous. Simon Rattle (left) seems to understand the music perfectly, and the result is something breathtakingly beautiful. From the opening melody of the violins, I am convinced that it is going to be a great performance. The tune is played so perfectly, not too fast (as if to make the ‘snake’ angry) and not too slow (to make the ‘snake’ sleep). This passage is very important, as it sets the atmosphere for and leads to the rest of the music.
The singing of the CBSO chorus is extraordinary, and noticeably, very fluent in Polish. They must have rehearsed very extensively. The solo tenor, Jon Garrison, is quite well chosen. His voice is a little bit harsh, but somehow it contrasts perfectly with the orchestral background, and it adds positive value to the whole performance. Moreover, his interpretation is quite successful and dramatically real.
You can’t also help but admire the big climaxes in the first and the third parts. The burst of orchestral and choral sounds are perfectly shaped, and the timing is so precise that you almost can hear it as a single sound.
The other pieces, the Stabat Mater and Litania do Marii Panny (Litany for the Virgin Mary), are also quite wonderful. The soloists tackle the high (and difficult) parts with ease. My reservation is that I prefer to hear the Stabat Mater in Latin than in Polish, because for me, it will certainly add to the religious feeling. (Szymanowski includes both Latin and Polish in the score).
The recording is another thing I admire. From the hushed opening of the third part to the big climaxes in the symphony, every detail is captured so vividly. All the beautiful exotic effects are showcased vividly. No wonder this disc won a Gramophone Award for engineering (besides Best Choral record).
This CD provides a wonderful introduction to the music of Szymanowski. At least, hear the symphony. That is one of the great orchestral pieces of the twentieth-century. I am also quite sure that it is quite hard to improve on these performances. Everything seems perfectly in place. Moreover, as if the excellent virtues I’ve highlighted above are not enough, the wonderful liner notes provides everything you need to know about those pieces, including the history, detailed explanations of each work, and in the end, the texts and translations in three languages.
To end, I want to add one interesting experience. If you can, listen to the symphony at night, with minimal lighting. Then, you can experience all the wonderful exotic effecst. If you listen to this in bright daylight, I am sure you will lose half the excitement. It worked that way for me.
Bibliography/List of References:
1. The liner note of the disc.
2. Layton, Robert (ed.), A Companion to the Symphony, London, 1993.
751: 12.7.2000 Michael Anthonio