Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus, Antoni Wit


Antoni Wit, artistic director of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, continues his splendid survey of the major works of Poland’s Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) with the much-neglected ballet-pantomime Harnasie. This tale of a brigand chief who storms his way into a rustic wedding and abducts the bride gave the composer the opportunity to employ rhythms and harmonies based on the folk music of the Gorals, the natives of the Tatra Mountains. With its angular melodies and irregular accents, plus its characteristic vigor, this was just the sort of tonic Szymanowski needed to bring the nationalistic agenda of the Young Poland movement to fruition in music. His personal artistic journey, beginning at the turn of the century and wandering through Chopin, Wagner, Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel, with excursions into the Sufi mystics Hafiz and Rumi, had reached its climax. Harnasie became a part of the Polish ballet repertoire after successful stagings in in 1937-1938. Sadly it was too late for the composer, who died of Tuberculosis at Lausanne in March 1937.

Harnasie represents Szymanowski’s apex. He throws some unusual instruments, including blocks, snare drum, whip and xylophone into an orchestral mix already characterized by his unique feeling for rich, complex harmony. The rhapsodic nature of his music is much in evidence in the tableau “The Harnas and the Girl.” Which brings to mind: just what does the title signify? At first blush, we might have taken it for the name of the girl. Actually, a Harnas is a brigand chief, and the Harnasie are his followers. Why not just translate the title? And while we’re at it, why not eliminate the brief vocals for tenor and even the stirring march of the of brigands, sung by the Warsaw Philharmonic Chorus in Tableau 3. The vocal solos add little or nothing, and the chorus could easily be re-scored for the orchestra. My rationale is this: Harnasie needs to be heard more often in our symphony halls in order to secure its place in Szymanowski’s opus. But its opportunities are limited by the vocal requirements and the fact that they are sung in a language not widely spoken outside of Poland.

The other works on this Naxos release are the pantomime Mandragora and the incidental music for the play Prince Potemkin. The former, designed for inclusion in Act 3 of Molií¨re’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, is surprisingly witty and imaginative for a composer in whom I had not previously noticed a sense of humor. As a sparkling neo-classical work, it begs comparison with Richard Strauss’ Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Antoni Wit and the WPO really seem to enjoy this scintillatingly scored music that engages all the resources of the orchestra and includes darker sounding music for a change of pace, possibly referring to the ancient association of the Mandrake root (Mandragora) with black magic.

The Prince Potemkin music did not engage me at first, possibly because I was expecting choice satirical writing. (Evidently, this is not the Potemkin who pulled the wool over Czarina Catherine’s eyes with his pre-fabricated model villages, giving rise to the expression “Potemkinize.”) This music, wholly serious in character, impressed me upon further auditions by Szymanowski’s characteristically luminous writing for the strings, a plangent oboe solo, and an eloquent choral section that is very much an essential part of this score.

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