Both men’s fortunes were changed after the First World War, but their music continued to develop in a much-changed world.
The Belcea Quartet played Szymanowski’s String Quartet no 1 which bears the hallmarks of his distinctive style – extremely high tessitura floating over rhythmic repetitions, quirky summations ending abruptly, held in silence. In Jancek’s In the Mists Anderszewski brought out the tension underlying Jancek’s nostalgia. Szymanowski’s lyricism, like Jancek’s, has a deeper edge.
After the First World War and the upheavals that followed, fantasy became associated with escapist retrogression. But it’s a mistake to assume that all fantasy music is backward-looking. Artists have often used myths to stimulate ideas the literal cannot grasp. That’s one of the reasons the Greeks used myth in the first place.
The idea of abstract music describing stories without words isn’t new, so Anderszewski and Henning Kraggerud included Robert Schumann’s Mrchenbilder showing how fairy tales can become music “pictures”. Szymanowski’s Myths is based on myths about water. Fluid lines interchange, piano and violin flowing together. Szymanowski’s response to images in the Odyssey inspired Metopes, which Anderszewski has recorded.
Like Debussy and Scriabin, the exotic appealed to Szymanowski, who visited the Near East. Songs of a Fairytale Princess are mood pieces too, so dramatic that the bounds of piano song seem to burst. Powerful breath control is needed for legato this sustained, and extreme vocal colour. Iwona Sobotka is a Szymanowski specialist. It was good to hear her live after hearing her on recordings.
For a composer, words aren’t the only form of expression. Sobotka also sang Slopiewnie “Word Songs”, where the text is semi-invented language used for sound patterns. Maybe it’s an advantage not to know Polish, so you can concentrate on the sound patterns rather than the word games, but Sobotka communicated well.
In the ten years between Szymanowski’s first and second String Quartets, Europe was transformed by war and revolution. Szymanowski was now teaching young composers, defending them from arch-conservatives. “Our aim”, he told a newspaper “is not yesterday, but today and tomorrow”.
Szymanowski’s String Quartet no 2 is lively and inventive. Like Stravinsky, the composer doesn’t copy folk forms, but uses their spirit to invigorate his own. Excellent, animated playing from the Belcea Quartet. Szymanowski’s lush fantasies fell out of fashion in times of war and communism. But exoticism isn’t necessarily conservative. Ravel and Debussy were inspired by foreign cultures to create music that changed boundaries. Thanks to Piotr Anderszewski and the Wigmore Hall, Szymanowski can be better be appreciated.