I am proud to announce that today one of my closest musical collaborators, the Polish soprano Aleksandra Zamojska, was honoured at a ceremony in Vienna with the ‘Golden Owl’ (Złota Sowa) award, a prestigious prize given to outstanding cultural figures in the international Polish diaspora by the Polish-Viennese journal Jupiter and its founder Jadwiga Hafner in collaboration with the Polish Consulate and the Polish branch of Newsweek. Aleksandra is one of two prizewinners in the music category, the other being the distinguished violinist Wanda Wiłkomirska (1929 -), one of Poland’s foremost instrumentalists in the post-war era who has lived in Australia since the 1980s.
Despite belonging to different generations, one factor linking these two performers is their commitment to the music of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). Wanda Wiłkomirska first came to international attention at the Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition in Poznan in 1952 – where she came second to Igor Oistrakh -, playing Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto (for my money one of the greatest and most achingly beautiful works in the violin concerto repertoire). Nine years later her performance of the same work in Carnegie Hall proved a turning-point in what subsequently became a long and illustrious musical career, leading her to solo appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic, Concertgebouw, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Cleveland and New York Philharmonic Orchestras among others, working with conductors including Leinsdorf, Klemperer, Barbirolli, Bernstein and Boulez.
It was also through the music of Szymanowski that I first came to know Aleksandra Zamojska back in 2000 at the Aix-en-Provence International Opera Festival, where I was working as one of Sir Simon Rattle’s music staff on Janacek’s Makropoulos Case. Aleksandra was one of the participants in the Festival’s European Academy and happened to have with her a score of Szymanowski’s Op. 31 cycle Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess, a piece that had fascinated me for a long time. With no particular aim in mind I started to read through the cycle at the piano with Aleksandra during breaks in rehearsals and realised immediately that I was dealing with an extremely rare vocal talent. Not only was she capable of dealing effortlessly with Szymanowski’s formidable and stratospheric coloratura – a remarkable technical feat in itself -, but more importantly, Aleksandra displayed an uncanny ability to shape her line with seemingly limitless flexibility of inflection, responding to the cycle’s refined poetic imagery and sophisticated harmonic language in symbiosis with the piano. Within a couple of weeks word had clearly got around about the musical partnership spontaneously evolving on the unofficial fringes of the festival’s official programme, as we performed sections from the cycle privately for Sir Simon and then live on an open-air French radio broadcast (of which I have a hissy but uniquely atmospheric recording, in which the sounds of the birds and crickets of Provence mingle with Szymanowski’s ineffably melancholic melodic lines).
Eight years later, by which time she had already become an internationally-recognized soloist and a regular at the Paris Opera, I conducted Aleksandra (alongside the excellent British bass-baritone Matthew Brook) in the first performance of my oratorio Et iterum venturus est with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris in an Olivier Messiaen memorial concert on the eve of what would have been the great French composer’s 100th birthday.
Three days after the performance, I received a telephone call from a hospital ward in Aleksandra’s home town of Salzburg. She had been hit on a pedestrian crossing by a car travelling at considerable speed when walking home after singing in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, suffering multiple fractures resulting in her hospitalization for three months, during which time the future of her performing career hung in the balance.
Today’s award is therefore all the more remarkable as a testimony to Aleksandra’s comeback after what was a life-threatening accident. Six months after leaving hospital she gave the first performance of my song-cycle Abendempfindung for soprano, piano and ensemble at the Saarbrücken Radio Hall; not only was her voice back to prime form, but I and others had the impression that it had gained in power, depth and intensity of expression, an impression that was reinforced at a recent concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées where I heard her perform Beethoven’s Ah perfido! and Haydn’s fiendishly difficult Scena di Berenice to great effect at short notice under the baton of Paul McCreesh.
It is however with the songs of Karol Szymanowski that I will always associate Aleksandra Zamojska’s voice (I particularly recall an exceptionally striking reading of the Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin Op. 42 with the Prague Philharmonia conducted by Kaspar Zehnder). Over the years Szymanowski’s music has lost none of its fascination and mystery for me; though at times the density and harmonic erudition of his scores is such as to deter all but the most intrepid performer, I remain convinced that pieces such as his opera Krol Roger or the Song of the Night are among the great works of the twentieth century. A psychologically complex figure, Szymanowski was capable both of writing music of an extreme opulence and also of limpid simplicity, particularly in the folk-inspired and meditative religious works of his later years such as the Stabat Mater Op. 53 or Litany to the Virgin Op. 59, in which his study of Polish Renaissance style is very apparent. Having taken his language to the brink of atonality and a textural richness equal if not exceeding that of Strauss or Scriabin, Szymanowski clearly saw the need for a radical purification of his idiom via a return to spare polyphony and transparent scoring. In this respect his retrieval of early music and folk modes in the 1920s can be seen as prophetic, anticipating the contemplative diatonicism of Gorecki (on whom Szymanowski’s late works exerted a crucial influence) drawing on identical elements 50 years later.
The timelessness of Szymanowski’s late idiom can be felt by watching footage from an interesting experimental collaboration between Aleksandra Zamojska and the Polish Early Music ensemble Ars Nova, a group which has performed the works of many modern Polish composers including Witold Lutosławski on early instruments (an approach very similar to that of the Estonian group Hortus Musicus who played a catalyzing rôle in the development of Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli style. Here you can hear a rendition of one of their arrangements of Szymanowski’s Kurpian folksongs of 1930-33 (intoned at the start of the clip by folk-singer Apolonia Nowak) by Jacek Urbaniak and Krzysztof Owczynik, resulting in a thought-provoking mingling of epochs that can be viewed as an imaginative extension of Szymanowski’s own intentions.
Despite the noble efforts of generations of Polish musicians such as the two ‘Golden Owls’ honoured today in Vienna, I anticipate that it will probably still be a long while before Szymanowski’s output attains the same level of international recognition as that of Janacek or Bartok, with whom he can justifiably be compared. But this relative lack of exposure outside Poland should not obscure the significance of the intuition expressed in – and at times primarily between – the notes of his works, which even at their most seemingly hedonistic never fail to convey an intense sense of spiritual quest. The trajectory of Szymanowski’s music charts a personal journey towards the wisdom distilled from increasing simplicity, discovered in a return to the ethos of a time when music was based on something other and more objective than mere self-expression (an ethos preserved intact in the communal folk-art of the Polish mountains). Pieces such as the Stabat Mater seem imbued with the same message as other stylistically divergent but philosophically similar retrievals of pre-tonal music that can be found in composers as diverse as Debussy, Tournemire, Stravinsky, Poulenc, Messiaen, Webern, Andriessen or Gorecki. A message that, at the risk of anachronism, might be termed post-modern: if we have the courage not to be deceived by linear models of artistic ‘progress’, we may well realize that the way forward and the way back may in fact be one and the same.