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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
12 Etudes, Op. 33 [14:37]
Masques, Op. 34 [27:44]
4 Etudes, Op. 4 [14:03]
Métopes ‘Trois Poèmes’, Op. 29 [18:10]
Cédric Tiberghien (piano)
rec. 10-12 March 2013, Henry Wood Hall, London.
HYPERION CDA67886 [74:36]

Many would consider Karol Szymanowski the most celebrated Polish composer of the twentieth century. Well-read, well-travelled and with an avid interest in the arts and architecture, his early music was influenced by Wagner and Reger. Later he broke free of these shackles and his music became more harmonically adventurous, impressionistic, exotic and more economic of texture. Debussy and Ravel became influential.

The earliest pieces here are the 4 Etudes, Op. 4 composed between 1900 and 1902 and dedicated to his cousin Natalia Neuhaus, sister of Heinrich who became the teacher of both Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels at the Moscow Conservatory. Taking inspiration from Chopin’s Etudes, Szymanowski’s Etudes have echoes of Scriabin permeating their fabric. The composer employs bold harmonic language throughout. The third Etude became his most popular piano piece, a great favourite of Paderewski.

Fast forward the clock to 1916 and we come to the 12 Etudes, Op. 33, dedicated to the French pianist Alfred Cortot. Marked by a condensed brevity, each displays a contrast in tempo, texture, mood and colour. Again they hark back for inspiration to Chopin’s 24 Etudes. They make great technical demands on the pianist, and I found them no easy listen.

A year earlier in 1915, Szymanowski composed Métopes ‘Trois Poèmes’, Op. 29. He took as his inspiration the reliefs or metopes at the Sicilian temple of Selinunte and now housed in the National Museum in Palermo. These he saw on a trip to Italy four years earlier. Each of these miniature tone poems draws on Greek mythology: L’ile des Sirènes, Calypso and Nausicaa. From his earlier piano works, the composer has moved forward by leaps and bounds with this work, breaking away from German neo-romanticism and embracing the impressionism and influences of Ravel and Debussy. Métopes have remained popular with pianists since they were first published in Vienna in 1922, indeed no less than Artur Rubinstein took the work into his repertoire.

1915-16 saw the composition of Masques, Op.34. Like Métopes, it is also in the form of a triptych. Its form is impressionistic, with complex harmonic structure and free narrative form. Each piece recalls a famous literary character: Queen Sheherazade (Sheherazade), Tristan (Tantris le Bouffon) and Don Juan (La Sérénade de Don Juan).

Having already recorded Szymanowski’s complete works for violin and piano with the violinist Alina Ibragimova, one of his regular recital partners, this is the French pianist’s first solo album for Hyperion. He clearly has an affinity with and real understanding for these works. Pianistically demanding, his attention to detail and phenomenal technique meets all the challenges head-on. His kaleidoscopic spectrum of tonal colour and wide dynamic range are well suited to this music. Tiberghien’s beauty of sound is captured by the recording engineers, who achieve a pleasing and satisfying aural perspective. Francis Pott’s comprehensive, analytical liner-notes — in English, French and German — are a bonus in setting this less than familiar music in some sort of context. I found them extremely informative.

All told, this is music well worth exploring.

Stephen Greenbank