Classical Music

LEBRECHT LISTENS | Two New Releases Showcase The Art Of Karol Szymanowski

Karol Szymanowski in 1935 by unknown photographer (Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (National archive of Poland)/Public domain)

Szymanowski: Stabat Mater, Op. 53 & Penderecki: Dies Irae (Orfeo)
Karol Szymanowski: Piano Works (DG)


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While Karol Szymanowski is unlikely ever to be voted into the Classic FM Hall of Fame, his stock has risen steadily in the present century, so much so that he can almost be counted now as mainstream. This was never the case in his lifetime, when he suffered the dual disability for a composer of being Polish and gay. On the first count he was compared unfavourably to Chopin, on the second disparagingly to Tchaikovsky. Always his own man, Szymanowski (1882-1937) sounds like no other maker of musical language — as even a cursory listening will attest.

A Stabat Mater of 1926, mourning the death of a beloved niece, is unexpectedly upbeat for the circumstances. Sung in Polish and using two female soloists and a tenor, it conjures more hope than loss in a musical style closer to Janacek than Stravinsky. An Austrian radio performance conducted by Michael Gielen in January 2000 takes the ear down unsuspected forest paths, the treetops twinkling with a promise of redemption. I haven’t heard a more gripping choral work all year.

And then, by the next post, along comes the Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman with a set of Preludes and Mazurkas that retune my ears to a wider spectrum. Szymanowski at the piano is at once playful and deceptive. A touch of Chopin mutates into Skryabin. The second prelude is defiantly hedonistic, the third is Schumann-going-on-Schoenberg. Zimerman makes fresh sense of every crafted phrase. At the moment the eighth prelude is my favourite, but it is getting challenged by a pair of mazurkas. This is an album you will return to over and over again.

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