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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Stabat Mater Op.53 (1925-6) [23:25]
Harnasie Op.55 (1923-31) [34:59]
Lucy Crowe (soprano), Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo), Robert Murray (tenor), Gábor Bretz (baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Edward Gardner
rec. Fairfield Halls, Croydon, England, January 2013
SACD Surround reviewed.
CHANDOS CHSA5123 [58:36]

After waiting several years for modern recordings of Szymanowski we are suddenly being presented with several at once including two complete sets of the symphonies. This is excellent because for all that Szymanowski is not regarded outside Poland with quite the respect he gets at home, his music is undoubtedly well worth hearing. Some of it achieves real importance: I would suggest King Roger, the Stabat Mater and the First Violin Concerto are amongst the loveliest pieces of the early to mid-20th century.

This disc arrived along with another recording of the Stabat Mater from LSO Live conducted by Gergiev so comparisons were inevitable. As I say in the other review (yet to be published), there is little to choose as regards the orchestral playing and choral singing save that the LSO Chorus sounds bigger than the BBC Symphony Chorus. Gergiev takes much the same time overall as Gardner. The big differences are twofold: the recordings, in which this Chandos comes out far the best, and in the female soloists. Lucy Crowe especially has a beautifully clean and pure voice and makes the most ethereal sound in this gorgeous music. Her partnership with Pamela Helen Stephen is a joy to hear. The recording was made in the Fairfield Halls and works extremely well. Heard in surround a lovely spaciousness is achieved. This, combined with some judicious spot miking, results in a very finely detailed recording with no loss of impact even in the quietest moments. Well done to engineer Ralph Couzens and his team.
The impact of the ballet Harnasie here far exceeds that of my other two recordings dating from decades ago. This is an exotic and evocative score full of lush sounds and lively drama. Unusually for a ballet the forces include chorus and tenor soloist which will have made performances very few and far between. Harnasie has much in common with Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe though only the most indulgent could suggest the music is as good as Ravel's great masterpiece. The detailed notes describe how the composer immersed himself in the culture of the Tatra mountain region of Poland during the long gestation of his score. It is certainly a far more rhythmic and dramatic invention than the Stabat Mater and makes a nice contrast on the disc.
This is the second disc of Szymanowski recordings being made as part of Chandos' Musyka Polska series. All the others have been of Lutosławski. One assumes that the most important of Szymanowski's remaining works will appear in due course (Third Symphony and First Violin Concerto perhaps?) and Chandos do suggest at least one more release is being prepared. On the strength of the present SACD it will be worth waiting for.  

Dave Billinge