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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Stabat Mater, Op. 53 (1924-26) [24:59]*
Veni Creator, Op. 57 (1930) [10:22] **
Litania do Marii Panny, Op. 59 (1933) [9:11]***
Demeter, Op. 37b (1917) [7:58] ****
Penthesilea, Op. 18 (1908) [6:56] *****
Iwona Hossa (soprano) *,**,***,*****; Ewa Marciniec (mezzo) *,****; Jarosław Bręk (baritone) *;
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Antoni Wit
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw, Poland, 27-28 August, 2007*; 14 June, 2007**,***; 20 May, 2007****,*****. DDD
NAXOS 8.570724 [59:26]


Experience Classicsonline

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 are invited.

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 approach.

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.

Mark Sealey

see also Review by Ewan McCormick



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