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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Stabat Mater, Op.53 (1924-26) [24:59]
Veni Creator, Op.57 (1930) [10:22]
Litany to the Virgin Mary, 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 27-28 August 2007 (Stabat Mater); 14 June 2007 (Veni Creator, Litany) and 20 May 2007 (other works)
NAXOS 8.570724 [59:26]
Experience Classicsonline

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.

Szymanowski wrote 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, late-romantic style.

An excellent collection of Szymanowski’s choral works in first class sound.

Ewan McCormick



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