I’ve always found the music of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
to be interesting and worth exploring. Like many other
composers, his earlier works reflect the influence of his
immediate predecessors, yet he still managed to reveal an
original compositional voice.

The two works on this DVD release under the ICA Classics label
are Szymanowski’s “Symphony No. 3: The Song of The Night,” and
“Symphony No. 4: Concertante,” dating from 1914-1916 and 1932,
respectively. By this stage in his career, Szymanowski had
developed a highly original style. These live performances of the
Warsaw Philharmonic were conducted by Antoni Wit (1944 – ), and
broadcast from Warsaw Philharmonic Hall on November 19, 2009.

To me, Szymanowski’s “Symphony No. 3″ is quite original,
yet in many ways reminiscent of works by Alexander Scriabin
(1872-1915). It is scored for a very large orchestra including
organ, as well as a choir and tenor soloist. The title, “Song of the
Night” is an apt one, since it was inspired by a poem from the
13th Century philosopher-poet Rumi, who was basically praising
the starry night that brought divine illumination and union with
the Absolute. Although there were no subtitle options, the lyrics
sung by the tenor soloist in this recording, Rafał Bartmiński,
no doubt expressed this praise, along with the choral contributions,
often performed without lyrics. Eastern musical influences abound,
and the score is very sensual.

“Symphony No. 4″ features a prominent piano solo, almost
making this piece a concerto, hence the subtitle, “Concertante.”
Like “Symphony No. 3,” it is approximately 26 minutes’ duration,
and uses a much smaller orchestra, reflecting Szymanowski’s
fascination with his native Polish folk music from various regions,
including the Tatra mountains. In general, this piece lacks the
Neo-Impressionistic, ecstatic qualities of his “Symphony No. 3″
and is more characteristic of dance music. Many attractive melodies
are sprinkled throughout “Symphony No. 4,” which is very
“Neo-Classic” in style. The solo piano part isn’t overly virtuosic;
nevertheless, it requires a pianist of considerable skill. The piece
was dedicated to Szymanowski’s friend, Artur Rubinstein,
although that great pianist didn’t start playing it until several
years after Szymanowski’s death. As he was also an
accomplished pianist, early performances of this work featured
the piano solos at the hands of the composer.

The aforementioned tenor soloist in the “Symphony No. 3″
had a beautiful, rich voice and the pianist, Jan Krzysztof Broja,
gave a wonderful performance of the solo part in “Symphony
No. 4.” Antoni Wit was an expressive conductor who imparted
his will quite effectively to the orchestra. He is clearly a strong
proponent of these works. In fact, Wit famously champions
Polish composers in general, including Penderecki, Lutoslawski
and Górecki. This was the first time I’d ever seen him conduct,
and I was impressed. The Warsaw Philharmonic played well,
although I noticed that only six double-basses were used.
I believe that in particular, “Symphony No. 3″ could have used
more. Generally, the camera work was fine, and the recorded
sound seemed good; although at times, I could have used a
bit more clarity.

This 2011 DVD release provided me with a great opportunity
to reacquaint myself with these two seminal works by this
fascinating composer. I recommend it.