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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Harnasie, Op. 55 (1935) [35:47]
Mandragora, Op. 43 (1920) [27:04]
Prince Potemkin, Incidental Music to Act V, Op. 51 (1925) [10:26]
Wieslaw Ochman (tenor); Alexander Pinderak (tenor); Ewa Marciniec (mezzo)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Antoni Wit
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw, June, September 2007. DDD
NAXOS 8.570723 [73:17]
Experience Classicsonline

This latest release in the Naxos Szymanowski series covers the composer’s music for the theatre. It focuses on his ‘ballet-pantomime’ Harnasie, coupled with two lesser known works: the short ‘pantomime’ Mandragora, and incidental music for Act V of Prince Potemkin, a play by the poet Tadeusz Miciński.
 
The Harnasie represented here packs a bold punch, with the Warsaw Philharmonic and conductor Antoni Wit faithfully tracing the work back to its roots in the folk sounds and dance rhythms of the Tatra mountains. The playing throughout has an intense, even threatening, muscularity which is well placed in this tale of peasant robbers and bridal kidnap. The brass section in particular plays with a sense of strident menace, while the woodwind excel in the archly seductive passages, which so clearly link this ballet with the lush, exotic sound world of Szymanowski’s opera King Roger, completed a few years earlier. The best example of this comes towards the end of the first tableau, with the Tatra Robbers’ Dance (track 5), leading to the rousing wedding scene at the start of the second tableau (track 6), where the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir make a forceful entry alongside shimmering percussive effects. Also worthy of note is the beautiful, yearning tenor solo in the final epilogue, accompanied by solo violin.
 
The effect, however, would be all the more satisfying if sung texts were provided with the sleeve-notes. These, the notes explain, are absent due to ‘copyright reasons’, despite being included for Simon Rattle’s 2006 EMI recording of Harnasie with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The Naxos recording also lacks some clarity. The intricate details of the score are sometimes lost, and the deep orchestral sonorities, so key to Szymanowski’s exoticism, are rather dulled. Certainly this is a less technically polished version than Rattle’s – both in terms of its recording technology and standards of playing. But it is a gutsier, more virile reading, and in that sense closer to the ballet’s folk origins.
 
The middle piece in the recording, Mandragora, is a slight, divertimento-style work. Composed as an interlude for Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, it shows the influence of Stravinsky. Persistent, alternating rhythms and driving percussion (including piano) are reminiscent of Petrushka, while the inclusion of a florid, Italianate tenor solo and light dance movements recall Pulcinella. Unfortunately, the omission of texts or even a synopsis of Mandragora’s three scenes does nothing to enhance our understanding or appreciation of this minor work.
 
The final, shortest, piece in the recording is a revelation. The ten-minute incidental music to a play based on the life of Prince Potemkin is much closer to the sound world of King Roger. Again, the absence of a full explanation of the music’s role in the play in the sleeve-notes fails to place it in context. However, the piece can be listened to on its own as a short, intense tone poem. Brooding strings and plaintive woodwind invoke a dark, threatening mood, while distant trumpet-calls hint at a military theme. A hypnotic chorus and mezzo solo further deepen the rich tonalities of the piece, but without texts or a synopsis, the listener is left a little too mystified.
 
John-Pierre Joyce
 
Reviews of other Szymanowski releases on Naxos
8.557981 Violin concertos
8.570721 Symphonies 2 & 3
8.570724 Stabat mater

 


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