About this Piece
Karol Szymanowski is enshrined as the progenitor of 20th-century Polish music, the godfather of, among others, Penderecki and Lutoslawski. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, for it doesn't much help in the dissemination of a dead composer's music for that composer to be identified primarily as the guiding figure of his native country's famous musical creators.
This identification is the cause of considerable chagrin to his staunch followers, who argue for performances of compositions from a large Szymanowski catalog that includes two operas, a ballet, three symphonies, choral works, many piano pieces (these were early championed by Artur Rubinstein), songs, and works for violin, including two concertos.
It's interesting that in 1929 the composer said, "Each man must go back to the earth from which he derives. Today I have developed into a national composer, not only subconsciously but with a thorough conviction, using the melodic treasures of the Polish folk." Yet, a quarter of a century earlier, in 1904, he wrote a (technically formidable) piano piece, Variations on a Polish Folk Theme. A case of latent nationalism.
Szymanowski's once and always idol was his countryman Chopin. But as he developed he found other heroes: Scriabin, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, and, as the Three Masks fully demonstrate, Ravel and Debussy. The music of the three pieces glows with the sensuality of the two French Impressionists, evolves in an orbit of advanced harmonic practices, bristles with all manner of extremely demanding pianism (Liszt is generously channeled), and conjures imagery of orientalism (the composer's travels included Algiers) and downright eroticism. Certain pianistic techniques are prominent in each of the pieces: repeated notes and chords; trills, arpeggios, and tremolos; and highly dramatic percussiveness.
Throughout the score a gorgeous, fantastical imagery abounds; this is music that beguiles, excites, and ignites the imagination.
Orrin Howard served the Philharmonic for more than 20 years as Director of Publications and Archives.