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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
20 Mazurkas Op. 50 (1924-5) [52.24]
Four Polish Dances (1926) [9.27]
2 Mazurkas Op. 62 (1933-34) [5.55]
Polish Songs (1926) [10.38]
Marek Szlezer (piano)
rec. 24-26 June 2020, Performance Hall, European Centre Matecnik “Mazowsze”, Otrębusy, Poland
DUX 1680 [78.29]

As is well known, Warsaw took terrible damage during the Second World War, with most of the city being flattened. Amazingly, the plans and photographs of the secular buildings and churches were not destroyed, so it could be rebuilt.

I remember being shocked and amazed at Holy Cross church on the city outskirts. This had been badly bombed, but surviving the wreckage was the beautiful memorial in stone to Karol Szymanowski near to a side pillar where, also surviving, is buried the heart of Chopin. In the light of the fact that this disc contains no less than the complete twenty-two of Szymanowski’s mazurkas (Chopin composed fifty-seven), it seems to me to be an appropriate memory and observation to pass on to readers.

Szymanowski placed the 20 Mazurkas Op 50 into five groups of four. Although they contain much of the familiar mazurka style and rhythmic patterning, he takes the form forward and modernises it for the 1920’s, both harmonically and melodically. Although it might make some of you blanch, I feel that what Piazzolla did for the tango, Szymanowski did for the mazurka!

The two Mazurkas Op 62 date from almost ten years later and were the composer’s last publication. They take the structure and harmony of the dance elements even further away from the original but are more lyrical and, to quote pianist Marek Szlezer, who has written the very handy booklet essay, are less “brutish” offering more “solace” and a strong valedictory atmosphere.

To my knowledge, having all of these Mazurkas on one disc is exceptional. Other pianists have recorded a handful alongside other works; for example, Roland Pöntinen on Bis (CD1137). Martin Roscoe, in his four-disc series of Szymanowski’s complete piano music for Naxos, recorded a set of four or more mazurkas on each volume along with a selection of other pieces. It would therefore be foolish to discuss contrasting performances. What I will say, however, is that these mazurkas are more divergent than you might imagine. For example, the rather thoughtful and gentle No. 3 and the very Debussian No. 13 are played in a dreamier way by Szlezer than Roscoe, who emphasises more of the dance elements throughout his recordings.

Some of the mazurkas have a very ‘earthy’ quality as, for example, the ‘vigoroso’ outer sections of number sixteen or the ‘con brio’ section of No. 10, but Szlezer is also able to present a really authentic interpretation of these sorts of dances and in the con brio mood of No. 20 he really lets go. Two are called ‘Rubasznie’, a very heavy-footed dance. An exact meaning is difficult to find but one translation offers ‘rubbish’!

The CD also includes the Four Polish Dances, given as possibly Op 47, and the nine Polish Songs, both from the 1920’s: a unique coupling. You might think that the Polish Songs could be rather uninteresting, and in some respects that is true, but the composer does not waste notes; he harmonises and enhances each simple melody with integrity and sympathy. His aim is to convey the joy of the traditional music of his country, especially the area around the Tatra mountains which he especially loved, in a way that western European and American pianists would find easier to relate to. To a certain degree, this is also the story that lies behind much of the rest of his quite small output, even the two violin concertos.

The recording is not quite ideal. I find it restricted in tone quality and stereophonic width, especially in the busier and louder sections. Szlezer has recorded other music of Szymanowski and has clearly got into the style and head of the composer. He may not be a household name but these interpretations are as good as you might find by any other more fashionable pianist.

Gary Higginson

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