Listeners who have wholeheartedly embraced the fin de siècle music of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel have never really responded to the fin de siècle music of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. Who can say why? As this disc coupling the composer's Second and Third symphonies performed by Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra proves, Szymanowski certainly wrote much first-rate music. Scored for an enormous late Romantic orchestra, the Second from 1911 is dramatic and heroic, with gorgeous melodies, brilliant colors, and powerful forms. Scored for tenor, chorus, and a huge post-Romantic orchestra, the three-movement Third from 1916 setting texts by the Sufi poet Rumi is mystical and sensual with shimmering textures, glimmering colors, and melodies so evocative you can almost taste them. Yet for all its quality, there have been precious few recordings of either work by Polish or non-Polish forces in the digital era, and Szymanowski remains far less known than many of his contemporaries.
Perhaps if fans of Mahler, Scriabin, Debussy, and Ravel tried this disc, they might change their minds. Antoni Wit and the Polish National Orchestra may be familiar to non-Polish listeners for their excellent Naxos series of recordings of Mahler's symphonies from the mid-'90s, and those strong-willed performances are apparently typical of their work together. No matter how difficult the music -- and there are pages here that rival Strauss for textural density and harmonic complexity -- Wit never loses his grip and the Warsaw orchestra never loses its control. Better yet, neither Wit nor his orchestra ever interpretively loses their way. Whether the music is grandly eloquent as in the Second Symphony's opening Allegro moderato or ecstatically expressive as in the Third Symphony's closing Largo, the performance is always fluent and persuasive. Joined by supple violin soloist Ewa Marczyk, brawny tenor Ryszard Minkiewicz, and the robust Warsaw Philharmonic Choir, this may well be the breakthrough recording for Szymanowski. Recorded in Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw, Naxos' digital sound is plain but effective.