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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1883-1937)
Litany to the Virgin Mary Op. 59 [8:33]
Stabat Mater Op. 53 [25:12]
Symphony No.3 'The Song of the Night', Op. 27 [26:34]
Aleksandra Kurzak (soprano), Agnieszka Rehlis (mezzo-soprano), Dmitry Korchak (tenor), Artur Ruciński (baritone)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir/Jacek Kaspszyk
rec. 2015, Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw, Poland
No sung texts or translations
WARNER CLASSICS 90295864507 [61:07]

These three works of Karol Szymanowski were written between 1914 and 1933, his most productive period. They make a fine collection of consistent quality, each one, the symphony included, featuring solo voice and choral contributions. The sung texts in each case are in Polish, even for the Stabat Mater which, though the familiar Latin poem is also printed in the score, Szymanowski insisted should be sung in Polish whenever it was performed in Poland. The forces here are almost all Polish, and the recording was made in Warsaw.

The Litany to the Virgin Mary is as setting of just two verses (out of seven) of a poem by Jerzy Liebert (1904-1931), a poet known for his philosophical and religious subjects. The piece, which Szymanowski began to compose in 1930, was first played in 1933, when it was described as part of an intended larger work, but nothing ever surfaced of subsequent verses, if indeed the composer ever returned to it. However, it does not feel too much like a torso, despite having just two short movements, so exquisitely finished is the writing for soprano and female chorus. Alexandra Kurzak,, an admired regular at the world’s leading opera houses, sings exquisitely too. The performance is languid and haunting. For all its brevity, a recording of this piece should be in any collection of the composer’s best works.

The Stabat Mater from 1926 was commissioned by the Polish industrialist Bronisław Krystall to commemorate his wife’s recent death. It is a work that seems to hold an important and influential place in the history of Polish music, and one can hear why in this excellent account. Jacek Kaspszyk conducts with a keen sense of the mystical import of the more lyrically devotional passages, while unleashing plenty of volume in the thunderous climaxes. All the singing, solo and choral, is very fine, but again it is Kurzak whose contribution to the beautiful last movement lingers longest in the mind’s ear.

The Symphony No. 3 from 1916 has elements of a cantata, being a setting for solo tenor, mixed choir and orchestra of a Polish translation of the “Song of the Night” by the 13th century Persian visionary Rumi. The burden of the text is summed up in such phrases as “I and God alone together in this night” and “What a roar! Joy arises, truth with gleaming wing is shining in this night”, and the music is every bit as soaring and exotic as that sounds, and at times highly dramatic. The splendid Russian tenor Dmitri Korchak is commanding throughout, and Kaspszyk luxuriates in the richly ecstatic orchestral textures. It makes a powerful conclusion to this excellent set of performances.

But there are two reservations, which some listeners will find more significant than others. First the booklet has no texts or translations, and only rather brief notes. Second the recorded sound, which is accurate in timbre and has plenty of impact when needed, is at times less than ideally balanced. This is obvious even from the first track, the opening song of the Litany, which is a single crescendo to, and decrescendo from, a big climax. At that climax the solo voice here is forwardly balanced and sounds as large as the entire choir, which is set back rather too much to make the intended effect. It is a small point, perhaps, and did not prevent at least four other reviewers (two in record magazines, two in national newspapers) referring to the excellence of the sound! So I checked on another system and on headphones, and compared it with a couple of other recordings, which managed the effect much better. Perhaps the engineers in Warsaw felt the soloists would need a bit of help in dominating the very loudest orchestral moments.

If these two points are deal-breakers, then there is a close rival with exactly the same programme in Rattle’s 1994 recording with the CBSO on EMI, in very good (and more naturally balanced) sound, with more flowing tempi, and equally good soloists – the soprano Elzbieta Szmytka is no less impressive than Kurzak. That issue does provide the essential texts and translations, and even its currently most accessible form, in a very cheap box with all four of Rattle’s excellent Birmingham Szymanowski CDs, those texts and translations are retained.

Roy Westbrook



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