SZYMANOWSKI:  Concert Overture.  Symphony No. 2 in B Flat, Op. 19.  Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin, Op. 42.  Slopiewnie (Wordsong), Op. 46b.
Zofia Kilanowicz, soprano; London Philharmonic Orch/Leon Botstein, cond.

TELARC CD 80567 (F) (DDD) TT:  68:28

Like Stravinsky, Karol Szymanowski was born in the summer of 1882, but as a student came under the influence of Richard Strauss rather than Rimsky-Korsakov. Later, again like Stravinsky, he was significantly influenced by the music of Debussy. But Stravinsky didnít stay as long as his Polish contemporary, who later added Ravel to a hothouse mix that became individualized in his best music. Not since Chopin had a Polish composer commanded attention west of the Oder River, and while his music is played occasionally today rather than often, he was nonetheless a bridge to a generation of 20th-Century Polish composers who were astoundingly individual and significantly influential: Witold Lutoslawki, Adrzej Panufnik, Grazina Bacewicz (among the best women composers of her time, although neglected in the West), Krzysztof Penderecki, and Henryk Gorecki.

Szymanowski's best-known works are two violin concertos and a third for piano that he called Symphonie concertante as well as Symphony No. 4 (in parentheses). The composer was dead by age 55, but conductors of nationalities other than Polish have championed his music, albeit selectively. Among the foreigners have been Antal Doráti, Eugene Ormandy, and most recently Sir Simon Rattle. Leon Botstein, who wears a variety of hats (perhaps too many, all at the same time), is the most recent disciple on discs, although not to particular advantage in the major work—Symphony No. 2 of 1910-12—on this resoundingly recorded Telarc disc from London's handy-trusty Walthamstow Town Hall, vintage February 2000.

In two movements of unequal length—the longer second one is a theme-&-variations ending in a fugue—we find Szymanowski beholden to Reger as well as Richard Strauss. Botstein doesn't hurry, but in slowing down to admire individual flowers he sacrifices a floral panorama. London recorded both the Second and Third Symphonies with Dorati 20 years ago in Detroit, analog products from "Orchestra Hall" ( which certainly was not the acoustically atrocious Ford Auditorium, no longer in use), and reissued them on a CD with Bartók's early Two Portraits in a kindred style. Dorati managed to savor everything at the same time he maintained a passionate, ongoing sweep that organized both symphonies (the Third, by the way, calls for a chorus), which gave them distinctive profiles. That disc, produced by the same James Mallinson who supervised Botstein's Y2K venture, deserves to be reissued, for more reasons than a marvelous digitizing of superb analog master-tapes.

Botstein fares better with the Concert Overture of 1904-05, from the end of Szymanowski's Warsaw Conservatory studies—so Straussian it could have been a lesser work by the elder composer (whose concert music was turning to embers by then). R.E.B. was reminded of Korngold—a genre as obvious, in any event, as it was second hand. Botstein adds two song cycles originally for voice and piano, both from the immediate Postwar-One period, whose Debussy-Ravel indebtedness is decorated with orientalisms: Four Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin, and the five-part Slopiewnie (translated "Wordsong" in the album notes). Zofia Kilanowicz sings both with a distinctively slavic timbre, but is esthetically wrong for the muezzin's erotic outpourings. Muezzins summon the Muslim faithful to prayer in Islam's male-dominated culture, beyond which, when sung by a woman, this music takes on a lesbian character. Szymanowski orchestrated the set in 1934—one of his last endeavors—which can be heard as it should be, with tenor, on a BBC Legends CD that R.E.B. reviewed a while back .

The "Wordsong" cycle could have been a continuation of the preceding songs, so like are they in musical diction and mood. Szymanowski admirers will embrace Slopiewnie since another recording is unlikely, in any case not soon. The London Philharmonic may be the British capital's "second" orchestra (after the LSO), a rank it currently shares with the Royal Phil, but does everything with professional panache, mirrored in an excellent recording per se. Orchestras, though, don't lead conductors, leaving Botstein responsible for what is tepid in the Second Symphony and wrong-headed in the Muezzin cycle.

R.D. (Jan. 2001)