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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
The Best of Martin Jones: Discover Szymanowski
Four Preludes (from Nine Preludes, op. 1) (1906) [7:23]
Two Studies (from Four Studies, op. 4) (1902) [6:18]
Fantasia in C Major, op. 14 (1905) [12:20]
Allegro Assai – molto appassionato (from Sonata no. 2 in A major, 21) (1911) [9:26]
L'îles des Sirènes (from Métopes, op. 29) (1915) [6:08]
Six Etudes (from Twelve Etudes, op. 33) (1916) [5:07]
Sérénade de Don Juan (from Masques, op. 34) (1916) [6:04]
Four Mazurkas (from 20 Mazurkas, op. 50) (1925) [8:29]
Four Polish Pieces (1926) [9:24]
Romantic Waltz (1925) [3:51]
Martin Jones (piano)
rec. 1992/1993, Wyastone Leys, UK
NIMBUS NI7730 [74:07]

Szymanowski is not a household name. Some classical music lovers may have heard ‘La Fontaine d’Arethuse’ (Mythes, op. 30), a favored encore of violinists in the mid-20th century, but of all of the piano pieces, only the single study in B-flat minor from the op. 4 set approaches popular status. Great pianists including Arthur Rubinstein (a close friend of the composer), Sviatoslav Richter, and Marc-André Hamelin have fallen in love with and proselytized on behalf of various pieces from Szymanowski’s significant piano catalog, but no one has yet managed to convince the masses of the music’s worth. The chief stumbling blocks faced by Szymanowski’s piano scores are their transcendental technical difficulties, their density of texture, and a lack of consistent and clear melodic profile. The music demands repeated hearing, and even “simple” pieces like the Mazurkas can be puzzling to a first-time listener.

A selection like the one found on the disc is an excellent way of introducing the Pole’s music to newcomers. The list of works presented is effective, containing some of his most accessible scores both better-known and obscure. For example, the first four of the twenty Mazurkas op. 50 have been excerpted. This might seem pro-forma, but Szymanowski’s champion Arthur Rubinstein often played those same four mazurkas in concert, occasionally swapping one of them out for either no. 6 or no. 10.

For the experienced listener already well-acquainted with Szymanowski’s piano works, it may be preferable to purchase the complete Nimbus set (NI1750) from which these are excerpted to hear Martin Jones play Szymanowski. It is odd to hear only the first movement of the second sonata and the excerpts from Métopes and Masques without their mates.

Martin Jones has been criticized in the past for interpretations that skim the surface of the music. His recordings of complete works are often measured against other pianists who specialize in that repertoire; for example, his Granados and Albeniz discs are held up against those of Alicia de Larrocha, while his Brahms is compared to Julius Katchen or a host of German pianists. In my opinion this is both unfair and counterproductive. Jones has not only recorded the greatest hits of many composers under difficult circumstances (Nimbus does not approve of numerous re-takes or edits), but he has also explored their more obscure works, pieces that most pianists don’t bother to learn. His playing is always at a high technical level, and his interpretations are serious and thought-out. Compared to a pianist like Idil Biret, whose complete cycles on Naxos sound like sight-reading sessions, Jones provides surveys that always inspire the listener to a deeper exploration of the music. His recordings might not be the last word on the scores in question, but luckily the “ultimate” reading is not necessary in our modern internet age of abundance, with thousands of discs available for free at the click of a button.

How does he measure up in Szymanowski? Jones has a long track record in this music going back to his first-ever recording, a 1972 Argo disc containing the complete op. 4 Studies, Métopes, Masques, and the Fantasie op. 15. It is intriguing to compare some of the Nimbus and Argo performances side-by-side, such as the ‘Sérénade de Don Juan’ from Masques. The Nimbus version is about 30 seconds longer, and is less sharply-etched, less swashbuckling than the Argo version, which has much more swagger and individual character. That being said, the Nimbus version boasts a wider dynamic range (more piano/pianissimo playing), and is significantly more sensuous. This added dimension of Mediterranean decadence is perhaps born of his acquaintance with the works of all of those Spanish and South American composers he has discovered since 1972.

Overall, his performances are tasteful, yet subtly passionate. Take the famous B-flat minor Etude op. 4; Jones sings out the melody in long phrases without any excessive rose-smelling. Compare this to Van Cliburn’s never-ending trudge through the work in which every cadence is closely examined and every downbeat feels hard-won. Jones remembers Szymanowski’s Andante tempo marking and takes the instruction “in the manner of a song” to heart, shepherding the phrases forward in the manner of a skillful singer. He does not stint on rubato, but does not apply it with a firehose like Cliburn. In 'L'îles des Sirènes’ from Métopes, Jones cannot conjure up the feverish and flitting sexual energy that Richter does in his live performance of 1989. The Englishman’s sirens are on the matronly side, though he finds some beautiful colors and brings the music to a fine climax before the final strings of trills. The four mazurkas presented here are impressive in their folk-like exuberance and the sensuous tendrils of sound he finds in the softer dances.

The most significant piece on the CD is the first movement of the second piano sonata. This is the only track whose inclusion can be questioned. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a sonata is a sonata is a sonata. One wishes to hear the entire thing, or none of it at all. Jones does not make a strong case for the piece in his performance of the movement; much of the playing sounds careful, and he does not successfully clarify the disparate strands of the thickly-textured writing, at least, not enough to make the piece intelligible. The overall effect of the movement is one of meandering decadent romanticism. Think Salome-era Strauss utilizing Chopin-like keyboard figures with no editorial intervention to keep things moving. It’s impressive to hear Jones conquer the hundreds of difficult figures with which Szymanowski liberally sprays the page, but there is no audible point to the work, which lacks any memorable themes.

Jones may not possess the overwhelming missionary fervor of a Rubinstein or Richter in this music, but he gets the job done. The purpose of a highlights disc should be to entice the listener into further exploration of the composer and the performer. After listening to the disc, I was inspired to seek out more performances by Martin Roscoe, Marc-André Hamelin, Piotr Anderszewski, and others who have recorded the works of Szymanowski.

The only significant problem with this recording is its cover art. The “Best of Martin Jones” series booklet covers thus far have featured a hideous mosaic tortoise head (Granados), an unappealing, blurry stock photo of two low-rent tango dancers (Guastavino), and on this release, a pair of grumpy Polish storks. The word “discover” on all the releases appears in a scrawled “by-hand” font that looks like it was created by a very busy child. If Nimbus wants to honor the pianist who has worked so hard on their behalf for so many years, they should consider a more dignified presentation, perhaps featuring a commissioned painting or sketch of Jones himself that can appear on every cover.

Richard Masters

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