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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Six Songs for voice and piano Op.2 [14.31]
Three fragments from poems by Jan Kasprowicz for voice and piano Op.5 [17.16]
The Swan for voice and piano Op.7 [6.24]
Four Songs for voice and piano Op.11 [12.0]
Rafal Majzner (tenor)
Katarzyna Rzeszutek (piano)
rec. Polish Radio Concert Studio, Katowice, July and August 2016.
No sung texts or translations
DUX 1369 [50.11]

On glancing at the CD case it rapidly became apparent that this disc contains songs from Szymanowski’s early years as a composer. The latest included are his Op.5 from 1904-05 and to put things in perspective, his Third Symphony dates from 1914 and it is from that year onwards that his very personal ‘orientalised’ idiom develops – cf. his first Violin Concerto and Mythes.

With regard to the accompanying booklet, I must lament the complete absence of any song texts, let alone translations. This is surely a major omission for a recording released outside of Poland. Nor can I can see any mention of any available download to compensate.

The booklet itself is in Polish and English and the latter portion contains some 1 pages of comment by Prof. Eugeniusz Sasiadek, of which approximately 40% is given over to praise for the recording and recording artists whilst the remaining 60% gives a very brief overview of the songs. We also have nearly two pages devoted to the career of the tenor and one page to the pianist with accompanying black and white photographs.

At this point your poor reviewer is thankful that he possesses Alistair Wightman’s exhaustive biography of Szymanowski (pub. Ashgate Press, 1999) which has allowed this review to be more than just vague comments.

Regarding the performances, I perceive that the tenor has a light-ish voice which shows some signs of strain – a loss of colour - in its higher registers. I found that repeated listening to songs in which he has to reach to the upper limit of his range became wearisome. He also occasionally sounds hesitant when singing quietly, lower down. His voice is well balanced in relation to the piano and I feel that the overall acoustic is well suited to the recital but occasionally I wished that the piano had a touch more resonance.

The disc opens with ‘Six Songs Op.2’ from 1900-02 which were started whilst Szymanowski, then aged eighteen, was a student in Warsaw and are all settings of poems by Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, regarded at the time as modernist or decadent. I find the songs to be mainly melancholy and yearning in their mood, with titles such as ‘You did not die’ and ‘Sometimes when long I dream half asleep’. The latter is the fourth song of the set and to my ears is easily the most notable member of the group, in that it is built around a mildly chromatic descending phrase which, although not particularly memorable, does avoid the sameness that links the other songs. That said, there is no recognisable personal character to the music, although the composer was particularly fond of the fourth song, even in his later years.

The second group of songs is his Op.5 settings of three fragments taken from poems by Jan Kasprowicz. It would seem that these three songs, lasting over seventeen minutes in total, became one of Szymanowski’s most popular works and were pieces that he himself rated highly. Alistair Wightman has included a full translation of the second fragment in his book, so in this instance I can at least understand what is going on. However, the tenor’s voice often sounds strained in its upper reaches and occasionally unsteady when singing quietly lower down in his register. Unfortunately this has significantly reduced my enjoyment of the songs.

The second poem is grim indeed – a cry against the horrific results of the plague:

I am and I weep
I beat my wings like that wounded bird of the night
That is compelled to gaze with blood red eyes at the sun.
And under my feet, a lonely grave is dug.
While a black crow sitting on the crossbar of the crucifix
Caws without ceasing, and jabs with his beak at the dead wood.

And so on ..... until:-

And you, O God,
The eternal, crowned by light,
Sit on your throne, amidst the stars,
A crown of gold around your head.
The cross shines at your feet.
Radiant, you contemplate the passing of centuries.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

As might be expected, Szymanowski provides music of some power for these words and the piece opens with a single sombre note on the piano, followed immediately by the tenor singing a doleful phrase which returns repeatedly, as this seven and a half minute long song progresses. Initially, the tenor sings quietly, but his tone becomes louder and more despairing as the words reflect the grim situation. I would not describe the music as being particularly memorable, but it certainly captures the despair of the situation. The final stanza is sung with a tired resignation, I feel, and this may be considered appropriate. I would like to hear this song orchestrated.

A single song from 1904 is next – entitled ‘The Swan’, to words by Waclaw Berent. It is a melancholy song, where the dark accompaniment may be intended to reflect the image of a bird in flight. According to Wightman, an instruction was written on the autograph score “with a freely rhythmical movement – like the wings of a flying bird”. There are at least three performances of this song on You Tube, so I have listened to it repeatedly. The performance on Channel Classics by tenor Piotr Beczala (now only available as a download) is to be preferred to this one. I cannot find a translation of the Polish verse, so I can merely report that it is a gloomy piece, and the repeated, rather memorable main theme in the piano fits the mood.

The last part of the CD is devoted to Szymanowski’s Four Songs OP.11 from 1904-5. These are settings of works of the poet Tadeusz Micinski, who like the other poets mentioned was associated with the Young Poland period. His work is darkly romantic and even Gothic in expression, verging on the satanic. Again I can find no translations of the poems on the web, but given the type of poem, it is probably not surprising that the mood is intense and gloom laden. The third song entitled ‘Over Me Flies’ is the most obviously melodic, with the piano carrying a Chopinesque melody. The tenor is stretched uncomfortably here.

By the age of 22-23 Szymanowski was not able to compose anything that would display the masterly compositional powers we hear so splendidly in the later products of the gilded, hedonistic efflorescence of his mature genius. Having said that, I do feel rather let down by the songs on this CD; perhaps a tenor whose voice is more suited to my taste would have made me more appreciative, and it is not Dux’s fault that the overall impression of the disc is one of unrelieved gloom. Such was the mindset in which many of the artists of the Young Poland period tended to operate.

Dux possess the only recording of Szymanowski’s first opera, ‘Hagith’, and have issued it as a DVD performance. I wish that they would extract the music and issue it as a CD.

Jim Westhead

 

 




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