Should you not be aware
of the fact Wladyslaw Szpilman, who
died in 2000, was the eponymous Pianist
of Roman Polanski’s celebrated film
and the author of the book from which
it derived. The soundtrack of the film
has proved durable and Szpilman’s own
works for piano and orchestra (he was
an able composer as well) have been
recorded by Sony. So this three-disc
set should well have something of a
constituency, especially as it fuses
some intriguing repertoire, performances
and chamber groups.
Let’s peruse the repertoire
first; Chopin, naturally, but also the
broadcast premiere of Bacewicz’s Second
Piano Sonata from 1953; Prokofiev’s
Seventh Sonata in a good performance
but also a Jazzmelody (so-called)
of Gershwin and Rodgers. The second
disc reunites Szpilman with an old and
dear colleague of his from before the
War, that splendid violinist Bronislaw
Gimpel - you might have his Vox box
on your shelf with its delectable Bruch,
Dvorak and Goldmark concerto recordings.
They run through two standard sonatas
– Grieg’s Op.45 and Beethoven’s Spring
- and join in some sparkling morceaux.
The third disc is given over to the
chamber group of which they were members,
the Warsaw Piano Quintet, which toured
widely and is here represented by two
works; the Schumann and, in a rare outing,
the Zarebski Quintet in G.
The performances with
Gimpel – both were born in 1911 though
the violinist died in 1979 – are the
works of congenial and long-standing
friends. They exude Old World charm
– and verities; there’s nothing tensile
or over-rushed in the Spring.
It’s a leisurely reading, with Szpilman
adept at bass etching and with plenty
of limpid generosity in the slow movement
- and slightly shallow piano tone. Accompanying
violin figures are always properly balanced
– Gimpel was never one of those "hear
me at all costs" fiddle players
– and its marshalling of subsidiary
figures in the finale is excellent.
A mellow reading, this, elegant and
colouristic and not propulsive or theatrical.
The same approach is followed in the
Grieg from five years later in 1965
where the two rely on colour and tonal
inflexion more than pure projection.
One can note Szpilman’s precisely graded
work in the opening movement and the
way both men stabilise the potentially
discursive writing; the pawky piano
writing is wittily explored, its stalking
bass line not a feature that others
routinely investigate. The folk elements
are successfully characterised, as are
the more obviously lyric moments. I
think admirers will welcome the duo’s
leisurely and affectionate approach
to these sonatas
The smaller violin
pieces include an ebullient Wieniawski,
and a virtuosic and colour-packed Bloch
Nigun. Of more interest is the
Rathaus Pastorale and dance,
written in 1937, and a sparky, Prokofiev-influenced
opus with some warm moments of impressionism
threaded through its lyricism.
Their Piano Quintet
taped this brace of quintets in Warsaw
in 1963 and 1965. The Schumann receives
a warm and attractive reading, albeit
one rather tonally dominated by Gimpel.
But the unanimity of the string work
is notable, and predictably so as they
clearly made for a tonally homogenous
group. The Zarebski is a real rarity.
It has a rather Brahmsian ethos and
is a boldly confident work. The highlight
is the beautiful Adagio, which spins
an effusive intertwining lyricism to
great effect. If only it were more concise.
At twelve minutes in length one could
do with moving on. Still the Scherzo
and Finale are bold and vigorous, full
of dance rhythms and dynamism.
The solo works go back
as far as 1946, the earliest recordings
in the set. His Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie
is unaffected and patently sincere and
the Ballade in F equally attractive.
The Bacewicz is a significant piece,
dedicated to Szpilman and here in its
first broadcast performance. It has
plenty of her Prokofiev-derived drive
but is none the worse for that and its
compact four movement structure (with
Baroque indications) demands attention.
There’s more Chopin in the shape of
the Nocturne in C minor Op. posth. which,
despite the so-so broadcast quality,
fails to dampen Szpilman’s wonderfully
singing tone. His own Mazurka is a gentle
homage to Chopin and the Old School
Friedman and Grunfeld are finely done.
He wasn’t above a jazzy tune or two
– and he’d obviously been listening
to Teddy Wilson whose stylistic fingerprints
loom large in the 1949 Jazzmelody.
Szpilman was clearly
a musician of significant gifts; we
know he gave performances of the big
concertos but here we find that he was
adaptable and sensitive and a clearly
consummate sonata colleague and chamber
ally. As a solo player he allied technical
command with a warmly singing and rounded
tone. Pretty much everything here is
well worth hearing – irrespective of
whether you’ve seen the film or not.
The booklet is a generous one, with
plenty of well-reproduced pictures,
promotional material and with a most
involving text written by Szpilman’s
son Andrzej. The only blot is that I
find I can’t cope with dual texts, English
on the left hand page and German on
the right. My eye runs on to the next
page to meet a flood of umlauts and
capitals. But otherwise this three disc
set stands the test and is a worthy
memorial to Szpilman.