Szymanowski was at the centre of a movement in early twentieth
century Poland to develop a distinctive
musical identity for his country. The intention was to steer it
away from the provincialism - even in Warsaw - that had caused Chopin
to move to France in the 1830s. Given some of the other - particularly East European
and Slav - nationalist movements of the same period, it has to
be said that Szymanowski's music makes its impact on us now perhaps
more for its subdued beauty, melodiousness and even its restrained
religious fervour than as music with primarily regional appeal.
The five items on this welcome
CD from Polish musicians illustrate that point. The Stabat
Mater is constructed around crescendi and diminuendi, lush
harmonies and contrasts in texture. They hint at a sparse, searing
world that Szymanowski never developed in the way that Gubaidulina,
Lutosławski or even Górecki did. There is almost as much of Brahms -
or even Puccini - the 'Quis est homo', [tr.2], for example!
- in this Stabat Mater as of composers whom we associate
with an old form that they brought into the twentieth century.
In other pieces - Penthesilea in particular -
we are reminded of Strauss too. Because Szymanowski chose to
set a Polish translation of the Latin text such comparisons
Both soloists and orchestra
are unapologetic in emphasising the romantic aura with which
the Stabat Mater is shot through, in pausing for effect
and swelling to reinforce. This is not wayward; but helps to
involve us in the performance. The 'Fac me tecum' [tr.4], for
example, is moving without being maudlin. Similarly the 'Virgo
virginum' [tr.5] is forceful without being over-rhetorical.
The choir too knows its place
- and stays there. The singing is clean and transparent, neither
over-blown, nor hesitant. Indeed, it was this orchestra and
chorus that first performed the Stabat Mater in 1929.
The piece occupies almost half of this relatively short CD and
makes a welcome addition to the catalogue, which otherwise contains
over half a dozen recordings of the Stabat Mater - one
of the better of them on Dux (349) by Wit too - though with
the Polish National Symphony Orchestra, Cracow Polish Radio/TV
Chorus and different soloists.
The Veni Creator was written five years or so
after the Stabat Mater and is the next most substantial
piece on this CD. In some ways it has a more consciously national
stamp than the Stabat Mater. Again to a Polish text,
it's lighter and more upbeat - understandably, given the theme.
To say that Iwona Hossa's (soprano) soaring and ample
voice 'stars' here too is not an exaggeration. Nor a criticism.
The singer has a technique and interpretative strengths that
lead us through her passages in the most comforting and yet
stimulating ways. Again contrast is key. Again Wit elicits these
to great effect from his forces.
The Litany is quieter, more introspective.
Once more, it's accuracy and spot-on technique from the players
and singer (Hossa too) that convey the intensity and concentration
required to make this work; histrionics would not have been
right at all. Yet the music is at times almost overpoweringly
downbeat. The sorrow and regret that permeate the way, for example,
that the strings play is never overdone, nor superfluous. These
musicians are obviously at home in this music and seem to have
set out to communicate what it means to them as much as to offer
it as a self-standing choral gem. They are successful in that
Demeter and Penthesilea were both written
earlier. Demeter was not only re-orchestrated in the
1920s, but its material also eventually formed the basis for
Szymanowski's opera, King Roger. Similarly Penthesilea
takes a classical theme and explores a small portion of it -
the Queen of the Amazons' love for Achilles. As precise and
passionate as Hossa is in the latter, Ewa Marciniec (mezzo-soprano)
is in her complete absorption in the spirit and technical 'letter'
of Demeter. Very persuasive singing expertly supported
by the choir and orchestra.
The presentation, recording
and booklet (no texts) are up to the usual Naxos standard - if
minimal. The balance, too, may strike some listeners as a little
off - particularly in the climaxes, when Hossa and Marciniec are just a little overshadowed
by the strings of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. Minor criticisms
aside, this is a collection of lovely and compelling music that
is sensitively interpreted and well performed by all.
see also Review
by Ewan McCormick