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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess (1915) [9:51]; Harnasie (1923-31) [33:47]; Love Songs of Hafiz (1911-1914) [21:32]
Iwona Sobotka (soprano)
Katarina Karnéus (mezzo)
Timothy Robinson (tenor)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 20 March 2006; 23-25 October 2002; 30 June 2004, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Violin Concerto No 1 (1916) [25:32]; Violin Concerto No 2 (1932 - 33) ( [20:57]; Symphonie Concertante (Symphony No 4) (1932) [24:41]
Thomas Zehetmair (violin)
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 9-11 April 1995; 11-12 October 1996, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
King Roger - Acts 1-2 (1918-24) [64:59]
King Roger - Act 3 [22:18]; Stabat Mater (1926) [23:20]; Litany to the Virgin Mary (1933) [8:02]; Symphony No 3 'Song of the Night' (1914-1916)
Elzbieta Szmytka (soprano)
Jadwiga Rappé, Florence Quivar (mezzo)
Philip Langridge, Jon Garrison (tenors)
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
John Connell (bass)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 21-25 July 1998 (King Roger); 3-4 April 1993; 1-2 October 1993, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
EMI CLASSICS 5145762 [4 CDs: 65:13 + 71:20 + 64:59 + 78:28]


Experience Classicsonline

The prospect of hearing the CBSO/Rattle combination again brought back very happy memories of their exciting and at one-time regular performances at the South Bank. This set has a roll-call of now-famous names and is built around the acclaimed recording of 'Stabat Mater' and 'Symphony No 3'. It also includes a memorable complete performance of the little-staged opera, 'King Roger', with Sir Thomas Hampson in the title role; both violin concertos, with Thomas Zehetmair as the soloist; the sparser Symphony No. 4 and a selection of vocal works. This generous programming makes the set a bargain, and it is probably the most complete survey of this composer available on disc. 

I was initially a little fearful that this quantity of Szymanowski - no matter how well performed - would be like an entire meal composed of nothing but Turkish Delight. However, his output is more varied than is widely appreciated. 

His musical oeuvre has three distinct periods. The best-known lush, hedonistic and heavily ornamented style is in fact the middle one of these. This is heavily, but not exclusively represented, here. Prior to this, the composer was sturdily influenced by the works of Richard Strauss and had yet to find his own entirely distinctive voice. This less satisfactory early period is unsurprisingly little represented, but a glimpse into it is heard in the first part of the "Love Songs of Hafiz". The distinctive style for which he is now well known - largely posthumously, and significantly due to the championing of the pianist Artur Rubinstein - evolved as a result of on the one hand access to direct experience of foreign cultures, particularly Turkey, North Africa and Sicily -- with their byzantine and Islamic arts, and on the other hand of passing the First World War in seclusion on his family's estate. The most obvious influence is that of Scriabin but at times that of Stravinsky and of Ravel can also be detected. It is from this period that his best known works come: the third Symphony, the first violin concerto, the opera "King Roger". In the 1920s, his music turned homeward for its inspiration, as the composer took up residence in the Tatra Mountains - later to become home to his compatriot and fellow composer Gorecki. The composer had lost his family land and wealth in the wake of the Russian Revolution, and now had to live much more modestly earning his living through concert tours as a pianist. His works from this time reflect a leaner mood and a sparser approach; the ballet Harnasie, set in the Tatra Mountains; the second violin concerto and the Symphonie Concertante - written for his own more modest pianistic abilities rather than for a virtuoso soloist. This third, and perhaps less known, aspect of his composing is reasonably well represented in this survey, providing a balancing contrast to the works of the middle period. Perhaps its culmination is in the "Litany to the Virgin Mary" (1933) which brings a simple clarity which is very moving, and which has clearly had a big impact on subsequent composers of "religious minimalism" such as Gorecki (q.v.) and Arvo Pärt. 

The fourth disc, which is basically the emotional heart of this set, balances the sensual third Symphony, 'Song of the Night' which sets poetry by the Sufi mystic Rumi with exotic orchestration against the explicitly religious work "Stabat Mater" from the composer's more austere late period. Both these differing works are sensitively performed, giving the listener an excellent insight into the contrasting aspects of this composer's work. Rattle's interpretation won much praise when this recording was first issued. The inclusion of an additional late religious work, "Litany to the Virgin Mary", which is very beautifully sung, is a further bonus - extending the idiom developed in the "Stabat Mater". 

The opera King Roger, set in 12th century Sicily, re-casts the age-old theme of a contrast between conventional morality (as personified by the King) and sensual abandon (as personified by a young Shepherd). There is a genuine - almost Shakespearian - sense of dramatic tension which develops as the scenes unfold over the course of three acts (spread over two discs) and 89 minutes. The helpful and informative accompanying notes give the complete lyrics. Following this through the recording and its notes, I found it a moving work and one which as a result I would welcome the opportunity to see on the stage. Thomas Hampson is excellent in the title role, but the counterfoiling role of the Shepherd is also sung very well by the Polish tenor Ryszard Minkiewicz.

The Violin Concerto No 1 is perhaps Szymanowski's best known and most frequently performed work. His writing for the violin was inspired by his close friendship and longtime collaboration with Pavel Kochanski, who was permitted to compose his own cadenza for the first concerto. It is a rich and intricate work, in one seamless piece. The influence of Scriabin can sometimes be noticed. It is more surprising that this work was composed in wartime. By contrast, the second violin concerto was composed much later and in a simpler, more conventional style - although again in one continuous movement. Again, there is an improvised cadenza premiered by Kochanski. However, as with other late works, the influence of folk tunes and dances is seen, especially in the finale. The fourth symphony, which is effectively a simple piano concerto, is from the same period (1932) and sound-world as the second of the violin concertos (1932-33). It is sparser and more taut than the middle period works and has a relatively restrained solo part. Influences from folk dances can be observed in the finale section and in the solos for both piano and violin.

The first disc of the set is the most varied and contrasting, containing vocal works from all three of Szymanowski's compositional periods. 'Love Songs of Hafiz' - settings of erotic poetry by a Persian poet for high voice and orchestra - starts in the early period of his compositional output, with the influence of Strauss very clear. The 'Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess' - settings of poetry by the composer's sister Zofia – show the composer starting to shift to the style of his middle period, with some overtones of Stravinsky, especially in the vigorous 'Dance' which concludes this short sequence. Separating these two works is the ballet for tenor, chorus and orchestra 'Harnasie', written late in Szymanowski's career and set in the Tatra mountains. It is contrastingly robust, with scenes of robber's dens, drinking halls and peasant dances, which have a raw energy and driving force at variance with the languor found at times in some of his earlier works. 

As a survey, whilst perhaps not perfect, this set is very useful and very good value. The recordings are predominantly from the mid-1990s, and do at times sound a little dated. However it provides an informative and educational insight into this particular composer and the combination of thoroughness and value cannot be beaten.

Julie Williams


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