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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Fantasia in C major, Op. 14 (1905) [15:41]
Masques - Three poems for piano, Op. 34 (1915-16) [24:31]
Harnasie, Op. 55 (1923-31) (arr. for two pianos: Graźyna Bacewicz; performing adaptation: Andrzej Tatarski) [28:38]
Andrzej Tatarski (Fantasia, Harnasie); Joanna Domańska (Masques, Harnasie) (piano)
rec. 1992, National Philharmonic, Warsaw (Masques); January 2007, Studio S-1, Polish Radio, Warsaw (Fantasia, Harnasie)
DUX 0576 [68:50]



Polish composers usually owe something to Chopin, and Karol Szymanowski is no exception. That said, his earlier works are not narrowly nationalistic; indeed, Szymanowski travelled across Europe, the USA, North Africa and the Middle East, assimilating the music of Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin and Wagner along the way.
 
The composer is probably best known for his large-scale works, two of which – the Stabat Mater and the opera Król Roger – have been superbly recorded by Sir Simon Rattle. For their part Dux have marked the 70th anniversary of Szymanowski’s death with some of the less familiar pieces, although Domanska’s Masques was taped as long ago as 1992.
 
The disc kicks off with the Fantasia in C major, which a Viennese critic hailed as the work of an ‘authentic genius’. It is certainly formidable, which is probably why so few pianists attempted it in Szymanowski’s lifetime. Tatarski, a one-time pupil of Vlado Perlemuter, has the measure of the score, from the dark, quasi-Wagnerian dissonances at the beginning to the more bravura writing later on. Tristan is never far away – the opening of the second movement is strongly reminiscent of Liszt’s Liebestod transcription – but Ravel is lurking in the wings as well; rhythmically, though, this music has its roots further east.
 
The engineers provide a rich, weighty sound for Tatarski, with plenty of detail and a decent aural perspective. In fact, it’s some of the best recorded piano I’ve heard in a while, adding considerably to my enjoyment of this unfamiliar repertoire. The third movement strikes me as the most Chopinesque – that repeated bass note at the outset, the arabesques and the more aristocratic passages. This is a marvellous, virile performance of a piece that really ought to be better known.
 
After this display ‘Schéhérazade’, the opening movement of Masques, is much more Debussian in character, with its washes of colour and hints of Middle Eastern exoticism. However the writing does become more angular, more Stravinskian, at times. Domańska certainly has a remarkable technique and although the acoustic is not quite as sympathetic as before it is still full bodied and atmospheric.
 
In my recent appraisal of Marc-André Hamelin’s latest Alkan disc I remarked on his unselfconscious playing, which is also the case with Domańska. Just listen to how she copes with the music’s expressive range, from the gentle repeated opening notes to the more animated central section and back to the shimmer of the closing bars. Comparing this with Rimsky-Korsakov’s two-piano arrangement of his own Scheherazade is instructive; indeed, Szymanowski’s tale spinner seems much more elusive and infinitely more seductive.
 
The second movement, ‘Tantris the clown’, surely owes even more to Stravinsky, especially in its moments of manic comedy. Of course it is all about masks – Scheherazade has to play a role to prolong her life, Tantris is not who he seems and in ‘Don Juan’ the mask of bravado slips in the more reflective interludes. Domańska plays with considerable weight and brilliance here, but to be honest the final movement is probably the least successful in terms of characterisation and sheer individuality.
 
If Szymanowski owes something to Stravinsky in Masques the debt is even greater in Harnasie, a ballet in two tableaux and an epilogue. He was much influenced by folk music from the Polish Highlands (Górale) which he uses to great effect in this score. Add to that a fascination with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes and little wonder Harnasie sounds as if it was forged in the same creative furnace as the Rite and Petrouchka.
 
The story of Harnasie is a simple one; Harnas, a highland robber, falls in love with a beautiful young highland woman who has been promised to another. They meet in the spring herding, which is evoked in music of deceptive openness and simplicity. The folk rhythms are central to this score and the two pianists shape and propel the dances very well indeed.
 
The engineers seem to have opted for a closer balance than before, with Domańska and Tatarski positively attacking the keys as if to underline the music’s more atavistic aspect. Though descended from the Fantasia and Masques, this ballet is the most confident and forward-looking work on the disc. Yes, the influences are unmistakable but so too is the composer’s own ‘voice’, especially in moments of unexpected lyricism (from 2:29 in the ‘Danse du Harnasie’, for example).
 
‘Les Noces’, the high-spirited wedding that opens the second tableau, is really quite astonishing in its range of sonorities and sheer propulsive energy. It’s a riotous affair and fortunately the recording is able to cope with the huge dynamic swings without obvious strain. Perhaps the music becomes a touch opaque, even relentless, at times but there’s no doubting its raw, elemental power. Despite all this Szymanowski still manages to weave in some folk-like threads as well.
 
The work ends with the robbers raiding the cottage and carrying off the bride in music of wild abandon. By contrast the epilogue – a mountain dance – harks back to the simple melodies of the opening. Again the engineers must take credit for an excellent recording, which in these quieter passages allows the individual notes to sound and decay in a very natural way. A most satisfying result all round.
 
So, a useful introduction to Szymanowski’s less familiar pieces. Of all the music on the disc I enjoyed the Fantasia very much indeed and the Harnasie arrangement has made me curious to sample the orchestral original. The double gatefold packaging – one of my pet peeves – is cumbersome, especially when the booklet is pasted in. The notes are adequate, if oddly laid out – two columns per page, one in Polish, one in English – but don’t let that put you off an otherwise admirable issue.
 
Dan Morgan
 



 


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