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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
In the Mists
Six Songs, Op 2 (1902) [13:16]
Łabędź (The Swan), Op 7 (1904) [3:41]
Four Songs, Op 11 (1904-05) [10:26]
Five Songs, Op 13 (1905-07) [11:47]
Three Songs, Op 32 (1915) [7:05]
Seven Songs, Op 54 (1926) [10:39]
Krzysztof Biernacki (baritone)
Michael Baron (piano)
rec. 2016, Tobe Recital Hall, Florida Gulf University, Fort Myers, USA
Texts and translations included
MSR CLASSICS MS1608 [57:38]

A cursory analysis of Szymanowski’s entire output is extremely interesting in terms of what we don’t know about him as well as what we do: in an oeuvre containing 62 works with opus number (and a few without) there are 21 song cycles for voice with piano (or orchestra) as well as 5 single songs. If one considers the sacred works, cantatas, the choral ballets, the acapella Kurpian Songs, the Third Symphony, not to mention the operas King Roger and Hagith, as well as the relatively recently premièred (2007) operetta ‘Lottery for Husbands’ it is not too bold a claim to make that the human voice rather dominated his output. Much as I love this composer it has largely been due to the few extraordinary orchestral and choral masterpieces that have oft been recorded over the last 40 years, as well as the now familiar piano and violin works. His songs, with the possible exceptions of the orchestral cycles Love Songs of Hafiz, Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin, and Songs of a Fairytale Princess have fared less well.

In 1975 Szymanowski was one of the first ‘obscure’ composers I chose to ‘follow’. Believe me, to a novice collector at that time, he was very obscure! It is scarcely credible to think that (as I recall in the UK at least) there was only one recording apiece of the Violin Concertos (both on Supraphon), the Mythes were available on the blessed Argo, and there was very, very little else. A couple of years passed before I picked up an imported Muza black disc of the Stabat Mater and the Third Symphony. (Both pieces absolutely blew my mind!) Soon afterwards older collectors might recall the emergence of the Rediffusion label which began to issue some of the Symphonies, King Roger and the wonderful ballet Harnasie (another revelation!). Thereafter this enigmatic composer has never looked back – the advocacy of Sir Simon Rattle a decade or so ago gave his growing reputation a further boost.

The Polish label Dux has issued many of the song cycles in various combinations over the years, performed in the main by female voices. Channel Classics issued a four disc set of the complete songs with four different singers (two sopranos, a mezzo and a tenor) pretty recently – it was swiftly deleted, alas. The present issue is thus of uncommon interest both because of the rarity of repertoire and the use of a baritone voice, which is certainly a first on disc. In this case it’s Krzysztof Biernacki, a Pole who (the note tells us) has found success on both sides of the Atlantic although much of his regular work seems to take place in America and Canada. He also holds an academic post at the University of North Florida. His voice is at once rich and virile, a combination which I think suits some of these songs more than others. His command of various languages is deeply impressive – in this recital of less than an hour he sings in Polish, German, Russian and English (Joycean English at that!) and to these ears at least he projects in all cases both convincingly and comfortably.

The songs chosen are sung chronologically – the first three cycles and single song here are from Szymanowski’s early period (pre-1912), then there is one cycle each from his middle and late phases. I found listening to the disc in this order, especially the first half of it, a tad unvarying, and respectfully suggest that mixing the order up a little would have helped better appreciate the influences and fingerprints of each set.

Stylistically the early cycles inhabit a late romantic aesthetic – there is even a hint of Chopin in the Op.2 songs but this soon dissipates into a more chromatic fin-de-siècle style redolent of Richard Strauss, although the Polish texts add something different in terms of vocal colour. The single Op.7 number Łabędź (The Swan) is a deeply impressive achievement and should certainly be better known. Waclaw Berent’s gloomy text epitomises the spirit of the ‘Young Poland’ group of poets wearied by the vicissitudes of modern life. Szymanowski identified with them and this setting projects both pessimism and longing, qualities ably characterised here both by Biernacki and his consistently excellent partner Michael Baron who navigates the tricky accompaniment with skill and good taste. I do sense a little tension in the voice towards the ends of some of the longer phrases in this number. The Four Songs, Op.11 set to the histrionic texts of Tadeusz Miciński (the translations read like early, bad prototypes for the songs on Scott Walker’s (wonderful) first four solo albums). Taken in isolation Szymanowski’s settings are by now a little richer and more luxuriant, invoking at times the spirit perhaps of Reger; Biernacki here makes the most of each text’s ever headier allusions. By the time we get to the Op.13 set the composer is now selecting German texts by poets more commonly associated with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, most obviously Richard Dehmel. The accompaniments are by now even more elusive and chromatic – the liner notes contend that these songs approach the aesthetic of Berg and Schoenberg but to my ears are still underpinned by an extended tonality perhaps more redolent of Max Reger. Biernacki’s German is splendid, his voice especially restrained and sensitive in the Wunderhorn setting Christkindleins Wiegenlied, a song that sounds rather like a swift lullaby. Baron’s accompaniment here is carefully shaped, although a lack of timbral variety lends it a rather monochrome, or perhaps sepia quality.

The following brief set of three songs, Op.32, utilise Russian texts by the poet Dmitri Davydov, and at least chime with Szymanowski’s Eastern obsessions which perhaps found their most fecund expression in the First Violin Concerto and the Third Symphony. These songs strike a markedly different tone to the earlier works. Here at once there is more obvious opportunity for colour in the piano part, a challenge which Baron here meets more successfully. His tonal variety is at times hinted at by Biernacki, but insufficiently so to take full advantage of the potential of these songs. This is perhaps most obvious in the second of the set, the elusive The Sky without Stars. This is rather a shame, because his Russian diction sounds particularly convincing.

And so we move to the highlight for me of this disc, the extraordinary Joyce cycle, Op.54.
Having scrutinised lists of Szymanowski’s works many times in the past I haven’t the foggiest idea how I’d failed even to register the existence of these truly fascinating songs. Each of them, I think, manages to distil the essence of the mature Szymanowski. The Joyce poems are not stream-of-consciousness style Joyce, but they are still recognisably by that author. The accompaniments are terse and condensed, the vocal lines enigmatic and lusty in turn. Michael Baron projects his part with conviction and authority, but I felt Berniacki, whose performance is never less than serviceable, sometimes missed the potential for adventure in some of Joyce’s richer allusions. This superb cycle would provide excellent repertoire for a Finley say, or a Hampson. A really major find for me, then and this commendable reading conveys many of its singular qualities.

The notes are informative and helpful, although the timings given throughout for the Op.11 songs are wrong. The recording is detailed and truthful which may at odd times be detrimental in revealing occasional limitations to Berniacki’s voice. Notwithstanding such caveats, however, I expect many Szymanowskians will derive a lot of pleasure as well as learning from this enterprising disc. I know I did.

Richard Hanlon

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