One morning, a message plopped into my inbox from PWM, asking me to participate in four short films to promote the piano music of Karol Szymanowski. It couldn’t have come at a better time. I had recently been immersing myself in the composer’s opaline soundworld while working on the booklet notes for Krystian Zimerman’s award-winning recording of some of the solo piano works. The chance to stay there for a little while longer was more than welcome.
The fin-de-siècle era of late 19th and early 20th centuries has magnetised me for decades. It’s a period in which the pace of radical change was unprecedented. The conundrums facing creative artists accumulated like snowdrifts as they sought to establish their individuality against overwhelming forces such as the impact of Wagner, and later on, the catastrophic onslaught of World War I.
Szymanowski, who was a deeply sensitive, intuitive and responsive person, seems to have been preoccupied with struggle well before the Russian Revolution destroyed his family home at Tymoszówka. He had private emotional issues to deal with, particularly when facing up to a sexuality that he knew would make his life difficult and painful. Over time, his artistry acquired the character of a mirror to his world. If he held up the glass to his inward thoughts and feelings in his early Preludes, he later turned it outward to capture reflections of the antiquities and myths of ancient Greece in the Métopes.
His mirror turned almost upside-down in Masques, in which he not only produced quirky reinterpretations of three stories with powerful musical associations (Shéhérazade, Tristan, Don Juan), but also absorbed the influences of sardonic Prokofiev and spectacular Stravinsky and made those qualities his own. Finally there was his passion for the folkloric music of the Tatra mountains around his home in Zakopane, amply reflected in his mazurkas, the most substantial and successful set since Chopin.
After weeks of researching, planning and exchanging ideas, the outlines for each programme were set. Then it was time to record. Stephen Johnson, our brilliant narrator, went to the Szymanowski house in Zakopane to film his contributions; and a small crew from Krakow made its way to my home in the London suburbs, where chocolate brownies and a large pot of coffee awaited them. Matters got off to a shaky start when my two cats trotted up to investigate the newcomers and have a good sniff around the camera gear. Cats unfortunately tend to make a bee-line for anyone who doesn’t want them nearby, and one of our team turned out to be heavily allergic.
She pressed on heroically nonetheless and we set up in our front room, beside the piano and beneath the portrait of my husband’s grandmother, Paula, which you’ll spot in the films. Paula had trained to be an opera singer before her marriage, and the portrait was painted in Berlin in 1920; even if she had no direct connection with Szymanowski, the era and the sphere of influence seemed appropriate. The alternative would have been a portrait of the conductor Sir Georg Solti, but we feared that the maestro’s ferocious expression might prove distracting to viewers!
Next issue: camera funk. Mine, that is. I’d written scripts for my commentaries, but when faced with an actual camera, my mind went horrifically blank. Our director, with great patience, guided me as necessary as we tackled the range of topics for each of the films, while I did my best to find words that could sound authoritative as well as enthusiastic. All’s well that ends well: the cats were banished to the kitchen, I finally stopped shaking and by the time we wrapped up, the team had all they needed by way of footage.
Well aware of the privilege and responsibility of appearing alongside Peter Jablonski and Stephen in the completed films, I was rather nervous about viewing the results – but with Peter’s musical insights and superb playing, Stephen’s vivid narration and the suitably poetic assemblage of images and music, the four movies struck me as impressive and worthwhile. I hope they will win many more friends for Szymanowski and his glorious piano music.