Szymanowski's Stabat Mater Like Michelangelo's Pietà – An Interview with Vladimir Jurowski
small, Szymanowski's Stabat Mater Like Michelangelo's Pietà – An Interview with Vladimir Jurowski, Vladimir Jurowski, photo: Thomas Kurek, karen_robinson_portret.jpg
Vladimir Jurowski, the much sought-after conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, discusses his personal interpretation of Szymanowski's Stabat Mater in an exclusive interview with Culture.pl. On March 5th the work will be performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Choir at Southbank Centre in London.
Aleksander Laskowski: Before your concerts in London or Moscow, you talk to the audience about the music, explaining its meaning and giving additional context. What would you say to the audience before the performance of Karol Szymanowski's Stabat Mater?
Vladimir Jurowski: Unfortunately, I haven't yet had a chance to present this masterpiece in Moscow. I have conducted Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1 there. Szymanowski was already known in Russia in the 1960s, but a composition such as Stabat Mater remains largely unknown today because of the ban on religious music in the Soviet Union. Szymanowski of the Stabat Mater era was a completely different composer from the one he was when he wrote Violin Concerto No. 1, for instance. The music of Stabat Mater is much less polychromatic, it is more ascetic and austere. I believe that in a sense it prepares the ground for the later 20th-century masterpieces of Polish music: the compositions of Witold Lutosławski and, of course, Krzysztof Penderecki's Passion According to St. Luke.
Can you hear a preview of Penderecki's Passion in Szymanowski's music?
Very clearly. Obviously, in the case of Szymanowski's Stabat Mater, we are talking about a composer in search of the meaning of Polishness, hence his travels to Zakopane, where he studied folk music, though you can also hear its influence in other works, for instance in Violin Concerto No. 2. Stabat Mater leads Karol Szymanowski to a completely different sphere. In my opinion, this is a work comparable to Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, which is connected to the fact that they are both compositions devoted to a young person, or more particularly, to the death of a young person.
Stabat Mater was written in memory of the composer's niece, Alusia Bartoszewiczówna, who died as a result of a tragic accident on 23rd January 1925, when, during a stay in one of Lviv's monasteries, she was hit on the head by a falling statue of Saint Stanislaus Kostka.
It obviously influenced Stabat Mater. The composition intertwines various motifs from the composer's work and it presents explorations of a spiritual nature. Szymanowski finds here his own religious modus operandi. It seems very significant to me that the composer didn't use the classical text of Stabat Mater, but instead used a translation, and, to be more precise, an intentionally ‘primitive’ translation. His Stabat Mater reminds me of the Medieval wooden crucifixes which you can see in Eastern Europe and Germany. Their wood is cracked and blackened because of the time that has passed. It looks charred. And the facial features of the crucified are carved – so to speak – with a very blunt tool.
Szymanowski's Stabat Mater also reminds me of the later works of Michelangelo Buonarotti, for instance his last, unfinished Pietà [EN: Rondanini Pietà], housed at the Sforza Castle in Milan.
The music of Szymanowski's Stabat Mater reminds me of the late works by Beethoven, of his ‘late string quartets’. But surely not of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, which is characterized by a momentum absent in the work by the Polish composer. Szymanowski wrote Stabat Mater for a small orchestra and three soloists who rarely sing together. It is music that moves towards minimalism. In this context, obviously, it is necessary to mention its links to Henryk Mikołaj Górecki's Symphony No. 3, which wouldn't have been created if it wasn't for Szymanowski's Stabat Mater.
Do you perform Stabat Mater in Polish or in Latin?
In Polish, of course! We have wonderful Polish soloists, Elżbieta Szmytka and Andrzej Dobber, who will perform in London alongside Anne Sophie von Otter. The choir practices pronunciation with a Polish tutor. I believe it impossible to perform this composition in any language other than Polish.
Is it possible to feel the sacred element of the work in a concert hall, or should the composition rather be considered an example of Weltanschauungsmusik?
Many very different people come to concerts. Obviously, a concert hall is not a temple and we do not aspire to turn it into one. However, it has happened many times that Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, Benjamin Britten's War Requiem and Johannes Brahms's German Requiem – when well performed – were able to not only give aesthetic satisfaction, but also awaken profound emotions in the audience. People feel the spiritual depth of this music, even if it is performed outside of a religious setting. Obviously, I can image that a rendition of Stabat Mater in a Polish church, especially on some religious or state holiday, could impress the audience even more. To fully comprehend Stabat Mater it is necessary to understand the text, which is why we're planning to display the English translation.
Subtitles like in an opera house?
Yes. So that people can read the text while listening to the music and in that way have contact with the work in its entirety.
What was the biggest challenge for the conductor when preparing the performance of this composition?
A big problem is the measure. Szymanowski intentionally blurs certain concepts, he indicates tempo marks, he marks rubatos, so he gives moments of freedom within the composition, yet at the same time he does not give metronomic marks. More than once I have witnessed a situation when someone who wanted to bring out as much emotion as possible from this work lost its most important advantage – simplicity. Thus, I think that the greatest dilemma of the conductor is how not to perform this composition dryly or too formally, and, at the same time, not to cross the border beyond which true religious feelings or true sympathy towards someone's suffering becomes exhibitionism of sorts. This music isn't sentimental, but it tempts performers to add something to their interpretations to make it more romantic and sentimental. Meanwhile, Szymanowski's Stabat Mater is a deeply non-romantic work, it belongs to the composer's own world. I have conducted many of Szymanowski's compositions, as a listener I know even more of them, and I have always been a huge fan of the composer. I hope that with the help of our Polish colleagues we will manage to create a convincing and authentic interpretation of his Stabat Mater.