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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Stabat Mater Op.53* (1926) [23:21]
Litany to the Virgin Mary Op.59** (1933) [8:01]
Symphony No.3 Op.27 Song of the Night*** (1916) [24:42]
Elzbieta Szmytka (soprano)*
Florence Quivar (mezzo)**
Jon Garrison (tenor)***
John Connell (bass)*
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. City Hall Birmingham, 3-4 April 1993, Stabat Mater, Litany; 1-2 October 1993 Symphony
EMI CLASSICS 3 61592 2 [56:04]

Originally issued in 1994, this is one recording which could never really be said to have much connection with the nice shiny LP on the cover of EMI Classics’ ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series. A magnificent recording it undoubtedly is however, and with a Gramophone Award in 1995 and reviewers heaping praise left, right and centre it has rightful status in these annals of the great and greater.
Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater is one of those works which, once heard, sticks in the mind forever. It possesses an often breathtaking simplicity of line, but has that magical mix of perfect scoring and voicing, a passionate empathy for the subject of human suffering - and working from a Polish language text. I have a soft spot for it as a piece, remembering my father’s thickly packaged old Polish records conducted by Witold Rowicki, and having sung in the choir many years ago – an experience never forgotten. Szymanowski’s intention was to create a kind of “Peasants’ Requiem … a sort of prayer for souls.” The work became a commemoration for the recently deceased wife of the Warsaw industrialist Dr. Bronislav Krystall, but must also have been coloured by the tragic loss of Szymanowski’s young niece Agnes Bartoszewicz, which occurred while he was working on the project.
All of the soloists make a powerful contribution in the Stabat Mater, but it is Elzbieta Szmytka’s liquid tones which resonate most in the memory. Like a good poem, you can take any line or moment in this piece and become instantly involved, but if you want your tear ducts to go on instant alert then try the opening of the sixth movement, Chrystus niech mi bedzie grodem.
Litany to the Virgin Mary, one of Szymanowski’s last works, nonetheless harks back to the atmosphere and sense of timeless antiquity in his Stabat Mater. He wrote of this piece that it was “perhaps my most profound and concentrated work”. Elzbieta Szmytka once again crowns the glorious choral and orchestral sound which Rattle generates from his Birmingham forces, and the spine once again tingles responsively to that new/old mixture of relatively simple progressions and polyphony, ornamented with a passionate and innate romanticism.
Symphony No.3 belongs to Szymanowski’s so-called ‘impressionistic’ period. Exempt from being conscripted into the Czarist army through disability, he avoided war and entered some of the most artistically fruitful years of his life from 1914 to 1920. The subtitle of the work, Le chant de la nuit, refers to the text of a mystical Iranian poet, which had been translated into Polish. Kaikhosru Sorabji summed the piece up as “giving us in musical terms … the essence of Persian art ... that wonderful blend of ecstasy and languor of which only the great Iranian poets have the secret.” The score is indeed filled with exotic colour and elusive, translucent imagery, while at the same time having a firmly grounded structure and technique. It certainly creates a strong contrast with the other two works on this disc, but once understood and appreciated properly insinuates itself into the soul in a comparable fashion. You can also test your hi-fi on the climax at 6:33 into the final movement, when heaven’s bells and hell’s organ breaks loose in your living room.
Talking of sound quality, there is little to choose between the original 1994 CD and this re-mastered and noise-shaped reissue. There may be a little more gloss to the strings, a tad more definition in the subterranean organ pedal notes, a smidge of extra clarity in the mid-range, or it might be my mind playing tricks. In any case, the original recording was so good that the engineers must have had an easy time – I for one am glad that any tweaking has been kept to a minimum. It’s a shame we lose Robin Golding’s more analytical booklet notes from the original issue, but Jim Samson’s commentary provides a good deal of background information.
I can waffle on for hours about this music, but the bottom line is this question: can you hear the last movement of this recording of Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater – now at mid price - and leave the shop without it? If so, either your heart, or your wallet must be empty, for either of which affliction you have my sympathy.   
Dominy Clements


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