This new CD on Naxos enters a highly competitive marketplace.
There has been something of an upsurge in recent years of recordings
of Szymanowski’s late choral masterpieces. There is already another
good version on Naxos, with the exact sequence of works on this
new disc, conducted by Karol Stryja. Antoni Wit has himself recorded
the work before, again with Polish forces, for EMI in 1983 - recently
released on a new EMI bargain box of Szymanowski’s works. There
have also been versions by conductors as varied as Simon Rattle
and Robert Shaw, not forgetting Wislocki and Rowicki from the
older Polish generation. So how does this newcomer measure up?
Forming part of
what appears to be a new series of Polish works on Naxos, Wit
and his Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra supply a mature understanding
of the music which is balanced by engineering that is unobtrusive
yet fully realistic. The disc provides a good mix of Szymanowski’s
early, late-romantic style with his later more spare approach
initiated by his contact with these religious texts. The Stabat
Mater and Litany are tricky works to bring off effectively,
requiring from the performers a balance between restraint and
ecstasy, the spiritual and the sensual.
Not all recent performers
have successfully maintained the equilibrium between these two
opposing forces; Simon Rattle’s Birmingham version sounds fantastic
but to my ears the essentially chaste religious inspiration
behind the music is missing. No such concerns affect Wit’s performance;
he holds his forces on a tight rein, but will allow the dynamics
to expand as appropriate. The team of soloists is excellent,
with soprano Iwona Hossa particularly radiant in the Stabat
Mater and the three other works on this CD requiring her
participation. The Warsaw Philharmonic Choir sings with firm,
homogenous tone although perhaps an even greater attention to
dynamics might have been welcome.
The Veni Creator
is an altogether more extrovert work, as befitting its celebratory
origins (it was written for the inauguration of the Warsaw Academy
of Music) and the recording here makes a tremendous impact with
full chorus, orchestra and organ.
The two earlier
works, Demeter and Penthesilea, bring us examples
of Szymanowski the exoticist and romantic. Originally for voice
and piano, Szymanowski completed a full orchestral version of
Demeter in 1924. Setting a mythological poem by Szymanowski's
sister Zofia, the work portrays the feelings of the goddess
of the harvest as she wanders the earth searching for her daughter
Persephone, who had been abducted and taken to the underworld.
The music is for the most part restrained and slow, but the
orchestral colours reflect Szymanowski’s preoccupation with
Eastern culture with its whole tone scales and woodwind arabesques;
the work is contemporaneous with the Third Symphony.
Penthesilea in February 1908 during his stay in Nervi
near Genoa in Italy; the work was first presented to the public
in Lvov on 20 March 1910 by Szymanowski's sister Stanisława
Korwin-Szymanowska, who also participated in the premieres of
Stabat Mater and Litany. Reflecting the composer’s
interest in classical antiquity, the work is written in an opulent,
An excellent collection
of Szymanowski’s choral works in first class sound.