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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
9 Preludes op. 1 (1899-1900) [19:49]
Prelude in C sharp minor (1899-1900) [3:16]
4 Etudes op. 4 (1900–1902) [14:41]
Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor (1905-1909) [7:22]
Variations on a Polish Folk Theme in B minor, op. 10 (1900-1904) [21:37]
Marek Szlezer (piano)
rec. 2016/17, The European Centre Matecznik “Mazowsze” in Otrębusy, Poland
DUX 1367 [67:02]

Karol Szymanowski has been called the father of Polish modern music, this despite, as Alistair Wightman discuss in his excellent book on the composer and his music (ISBN 1859283918), his position as a constant outsider in his own country. His music was often seen by his countrymen as being too reactionary and modern for the music on this disc presents the basis of a national school and identity. However, as Marek Szlezer states in his own booklet notes, the composers “youthful works for the piano are a poignant farewell to the Romantic period,” and show just why he was described as “Chopin’s successor”.

It is strange that both editions of the complete piano music that I have, Martin Jones on Nimbus and Martin Roscoe for Naxos, have not recorded the Prelude in C sharp minor, so this comes as something new to me. Reading the notes, it states that the prelude was originally intended as part of what was destined to become the composers Op.1, but as he enlarged the set it was discarded and remained unpublished. Of the two sets the Martin Jones is more straight forward to compare as he presents the music in opus order in volume one of his survey (NI 5405/6), rather than having to flip between discs as is the case with Roscoe. I find Jones to be something of a hit or miss pianist, he has been prolific in his recordings for Nimbus with not all of them being as successful as they could be, I do find his Szymanowski to be one of the better sets. This did not stop me buying the Roscoe as the discs were released, and whilst I find his playing to be more incisive than Jones, he was sometimes let down in the first couple of volumes by the engineers as the piano sound was occasionally a bit muddy, although this was greatly improved for the final two discs.

The Nine Preludes, Op.1 were not Szymanowski’s first efforts at writing piano music, his first efforts having been lost, however, the Preludes in C minor and E flat minor are thought to have been written as early as 1896 when the composer was only fourteen. The Preludes represent the first works to be published under the auspices of the Young Poland in Music group and show the composer's love for the music of Chopin, especially the first and seventh, with Szlezer stating that the first could be viewed as his response to Chopin’s Nocturne Op.72, No. 1. When played together it is difficult to see why the C sharp minor Prelude was rejected, it fits well with the music of the nine and here makes an appropriate addition to the set.

The Four Etudes Op.4 have always been amongst my favourites of Szymanowski’s early piano works, here the influence of Scriabin is more noticeable than they were in the Preludes, and they certainly show through their greater ambition, a development in his compositional style. Wightman points to these works as evidence of the “precocious creative talent” of the composer whilst still a student in Warsaw. The third of the Etudes, the Andante in B flat minor, has become one of Szymanowski’s best known and loved pieces, this began with Paderewski who included it as a regular work in his concert repertoire and played it throughout Europe.

There are four years between the two movements of the Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor, the Fugue having been composed first in 1905 and probably whilst he was still a student in Warsaw, and this is born out in conventional fugal writing. The Prelude was added some four years later in 1909 so that the work as a whole could be entered into a competition, where he won second prize. The work shows the development over a relatively short period of Szymanowski’s compositional style, with the Prelude a definite advance as he became more aware of the differing styles of European music of the day and incorporating them into his own music.

The final work on the disc is his Variations on a Polish Folk Theme, the most ‘patriotic’ of all his early works. Whereas Szymanowski’s Op.3 set of Variations builds on the classical period model of variation writing, the Op.10 is a much stronger and more confident work, “considerably more advanced in both overall structure and application of variation techniques which owe much to the methods of Brahms” (Wightman). The work was the first time that the composer incorporated the folk music of his homeland into his music, a tune from the Highland region, although the source used was a greatly romanticised version. It is a strong if simple set of variations with the funeral march and use of bell effects in the eighth variation being quite affective, so much so that it was played at the composer’s own funeral in 1937. The work also shows the development of his personal style in the way that the extended final variation which rather than an exposition and development of the sonata allegro, ends with a fugue, something which was to become a favourite structural device.

I really enjoyed this disc, I found the playing of Marek Szlezer to be excellent and more inspired than Martin Jones, although on a couple of occasions I did feel myself longing for the insight of Martin Roscoe, perhaps this will come with time, especially if DUX allow him to continue on to fulfil a complete survey of Szymanowski’s piano music, something they have not done yet with those pianists who have offered for them an all Szymanowski disc, I for one would invest in any further discs of this pianist if he produced further discs of this composers music. His scholarly and informative notes only serve to heighten one’s enjoyment of this music. The recorded sound is very good indeed, it has a natural sound with just enough reverberation to give a feeling that you are listening to this music live. A worthy addition to my growing collection of Szymanowski’s music on disc.

Stuart Sillitoe

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