[…]. The Concert Overture
is a close-knit sonata allegro with a highly effective motivic structure. As regards its technique and style, the composition exhibits an affinity with the neo-Romantic music of Strauss. This is evident primarily in the instrumentation, but also in the harmonic writing and melodic language, with its two main themes, the first being dynamic and rhythmically distinct, and the second diatonic and static, reminiscent of the horn theme in Strauss’s Don Juan
.[…] For the audiences of the early twentieth century, the Concert Overture
testified to Szymanowski’s innovative approach; the influence of Strauss, a composer who was considered at the time as a sort of model to follow, was seen as worthy of the highest praise.[…]
The Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. 35 (1916) exhibits the most significant features of the second period of Szymanowski’s oeuvre. It is usually described as impressionistic, which in reference to Szymanowski should be understood as an endorsement of the idea of enriching the sound material of his compositions. Szymanowski adopted only some impulses from impressionism as he turned away from German art. He was also drawn towards Roman art and held a fascination with ancient culture and the Orient. These new inspirations did not change Szymanowski’s musical language to a significant degree, as the new elements were assimilated gradually, existing in parallel with the earlier devices. The hallmark of the style of the second period was the overlapping of contrasting tendencies and their specific synthesis. This testifies to the composer’s vivid and complex artistic nature, a highly individual and unique feature in the context of the European music of the time. The first performance of the First Violin Concerto, originally scheduled for 1917, with Paweł Kochański, the unparelleled interpreter of his violin works and dedicatee of the Concerto, did not take place on the planned date due to the unstable political situation. It was eventually premiered on 1 November 1922 in Warsaw, with Józef Ozimiński, leader of the Warsaw Philharmonic as soloist, and Emil Młynarski as conductor. Kochański performed the Concerto for the first time in 1924 in New York and Philadelphia, under Leopold Stokowski’s baton, to enormous acclaim. […].
These words confirm the stylistic duality of the work and the composer’s astonishment with the final result. It is the formal design of the Concerto that is particularly surprising. Instead of the traditional ternary structure, it is in single movement, an absolute novelty in an instrumental concerto. What is more, two structural principles are interwoven here: the traditional (the thematic content) and the innovative (the use of sound as an autonomous element). Most characteristic of the latter principle is the beginning of the composition – a uniquely vibrating aural space interspersed with brief motifs which seem to be an anticipation of Messiaen’s bird motifs. The nature of the solo instrument, however, induced the composer to bring the melodic aspect to the fore. The ecstatic-lyrical, irregular and modified themes circulate, as it were, around various suspension points or disperse in figurative arabesques of an exotic flavour, in contrast to the symmetry and fast tempos of the scherzando sections. These unexpected collisions of opposing elements create the aura of a fantasia. It is further enhanced by tempo changes which go beyond the convention of the romantically-inclined rubato and become a means of integrating a form liberated from the rigid framework of metre and temporal division.
The Concerto is a fine example of Szymanowski’s specific violin style which was developed in collaboration with Kochański. Its poetic charm lies in the sublimation of the instrument’s technical possibilities – a feel for the timbre of registers, for articulatory refinement and for the ideal blending of the possibilities of the violin with the character of the music, which flows from the very nature of the instrument, as it were. As regards the balance between the solo part and the orchestra, Szymanowski adopted a fine solution, both from the acoustical point of view (the violin ‘is always at the top’, as he wrote in one of his letters) and the artistic perspective. The large symphony orchestra is employed in different combinations, dividing the work into sections of different sound volume and the timbre is filled the changing colours of different instruments. This flexibility in shaping the musical material is, alongside the chamber-like character of orchestration, the work’s most innovative feature.
Thanks to its originality and unique emotional atmosphere, the First Violin Concerto has gained a permanent place in the concert repertoire, and is a truly novel contribution to the development of the genre. All the post-1900 violin concertos preceding Szymanowski’s work (by Karłowicz, Sibelius, Glazunov, Reger, Elgar, Nielsen), belong to the nineteenth-century tradition. Due to its stylistic identity, Szymanowski’s Concerto is unique. Later decades saw a universal turn towards the neo-classical trend (Kr ˇenek, Hindemith, Stravinsky).
Szymanowski composed Symphony No. 4 Symphonie concertante in 1932 with himself in mind as soloist. The work was premiered the same year in Poznań, with Szymanowski as soloist and Grzegorz Fitelberg as conductor. Even though the work is dedicated to Artur Rubinstein, its first performer (apart from the composer) was the Polish-born English pianist Jan Smeterlin, who performed it in London in 1934. Symphonie concertante belongs to the last period in Szymanowski’s career, commonly referred to as national, and is to a large extent representative of these years. From 1920 onwards, the composer tried to forge a new aesthetic, his efforts being linked to his activities as a promoter of national culture after Poland had regained independence after more than 120 years of foreign rule. Szymanowski’s great respect for Chopin lay at the roots of this resolve to formulate, in his music, the idiom of Polishness, as a signpost for his music.[…] Szymanowski, however, did not identify the notion of national style with the folk character of his art. In fact, he dismissed all attempts to ascribe folkloristic tendencies to him (with the exception of the ballet Harnasie). For me folklore has solely the importance of a fertilizing factor. My striving was to create a national style from Słopiewnie on wards, a piece in which there is not a touch of folklore, like in the Fourth Symphony… Indeed, the sound fabric of the work is not rooted in folk music, despite the use of dance rhythms. Szymanowski himself stressed that the overall character of his style is very Lechiti. [Lechitic refers to Lech, one of the legendary founders of Poland and indicates something of the essential Polish spirit – translator’s note].
It is a fact that after 1920 the composer’s original idiom incorporated folk elements, resulting in a simplification of his expressive devices. It was stimulated in some measure by Szymanowski’s fascination with the music of Stravinsky, a composer who, according to Szymanowski, was successful in achieving what he himself set as his principal goal – to preserve a national identity while at the same time creating universal values. The genre of the sinfonia concertante, its ancestry going back to the 18th century, was favoured by the neo-classical composers of the 1920s and 30s. A compromise between the symphony and the concerto, it took the soloistic element and ternary structure from the latter and the orchestral texture and sound from the former. Szymanowski’s Symphonie concertante, with its three traditional movements, has all these features. The first movement has a free sonata form. It is followed by the lyrical second movement with a ternary reprise, whereas the third movement is reminiscent of a rondo. The piano is the concertante instrument, even though in previous centuries other instruments were also treated as solo instruments in sinfonia concertante (flutes, bassoons, horns, trombones). The realization of the specific form has important consequences. There is a return to tonality and thirds-based consonances in the harmonic writing, a melodic design based on reduced intervals and vivid themes, and the use of precise dance formulas in the rhythmic structure. The treatment of the orchestra is also important.[…]. Thanks to the lucidity of the orchestration, melodic inventiveness and the excellently balanced dynamics, Szymanowski’s Symphonie concertante is a highly coherent piece, in which the overall idea of the soloist concertising with the ensemble serves as the unifying factor.