Simon Rattle has been a champion of Karol Szymanowski, and Naxos has released quite a few discs. Hopefully this new one will be another step along the way to his entering the mainstream. Having said that, these are not your average symphonies.
No.2 was completed in 1910 and first performed in Warsaw the following year, where it wasn't well received - Szymanowski had moved on from the popular taste, but the symphony did better abroad. The booklet notes remark on the influence of Scriabin, and I've read elsewhere that Reger was also an influence. Perhaps these seem like opposing forces, but you can hear a little of both. I also am reminded of Strauss and, in terms of the way the orchestra is used, Mahler. But the symphony's not just a patchwork of other men's work, it's very much itself. The structure is unusual - two movements, the second almost twice as long as the first and in theme-and-variation form but kind of split into 3 sections along traditional slow-scherzo-finale lines. The symphony begins with an odd little violin tune, a motif that recurs many times throughout, like a thread the composer keeps teasing at. It's a likeable movement, with various climaxes and a quiet ending. On my first listen I felt at times a nagging sameness of tempo, but second time round this wasn't an issue. The second movement begins with a mainly reflective theme, again with the violin in charge, and the first and second variations continue much in this vein. I see variations 3 to 6 as the "scherzo movement", although they're shot through with quieter passages. They're followed by a big fugue that builds up for several minutes with mounting excitement before coming to a halt, and the symphony then ends on a thrilling climax. Given the (relative) shortness of the finale and the general sameness of mood throughout the rest of the movement, I'm not sure the big ending was quite "earned", but it is fun.
Symphony no.3 was completed 6 years after no.2, and in the intervening period Szymanowski had travelled to Vienna and on through Italy to North Africa, returning to Poland via Rome, Paris, and London. Among the influences picked up on this journey were those of Ravel and Debussy and of Stravinsky. At the time he was also interested in Islamic culture, and the third symphony sets words (in Polish translation) by medieval Persian mystic Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi. The first movement begins mysteriously, depicting a hot, sleepless night; the sound world is an exotic one quite different from the second symphony. At first the chorus seems to be another instrument of the orchestra, although later it becomes more prominent. The words here urge the soul heavenward in the night, with a huge climax about 7 minutes in. The second movement, with wordless choir included, has quite a fast pulse under it, sounding to me like the description of a mystical journey. There's a strongly evocative orientalism to the music, but it's not of the picture-postcard sort you get from, say, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. This is more "authentic", suggesting Szymanowski had fully immersed himself in this world. The last movement begins quietly but there's another massive, ecstatic climax; when it's died down, the texture has become more refined and the ending is almost ghostly. I enjoyed this performance so much I immediately turned to Rattle's recording (on EMI, with Szymanowski's Stabat Mater) to remind myself how he approached it. It must be said that the sound quality on EMI is in a different class, with everything much clearer. But it's Wit who gives the better performance I think, more exotic and more exciting.
So, an entertaining 2nd and a superb 3rd: definitely one to get.