Szymanowski: Concert Overture, Sinfonia Concertante, etc. / Steffens, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie

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Periodically someone decides the time is ripe for a re-appraisal of the music of the Ukrainian-born Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. Among his most persuasive advocates have been such eminent conductors as Pierre Boulez and Simon Rattle, both of whom have committed much Szymanowski to disc. But, for one reason or another, he remains a name known to many while his music remains largely unknown. Possibly the Etude in B flat minor for piano – one of the most deeply moving of all piano études, with its powerful echoes of Rachmaninov – will be familiar to pianists, but little else from his broad output finds its way into the consciousness of music lovers. This latest disc devoted to Szymanowski on Capriccio’s “Modern Times” series does all it can to keep Szymanowksi obscure, but the music succeeds where Capriccio fails, and I would recommend this most strongly to all of those for whom Szymanowski is merely a name that sounds like a Russian transliteration of Schumann or a spoof composer with a name derived from a cross-fertilization of Schumann and Tchaikovsky. These are not the best performances you will find, and the packaging is grim, but the music is wonderful and for those whose idea of hi-fidelity is listening to music through their computer speakers, the flat recorded sound will not unduly disturb the pleasure of an encounter with this gorgeous music.

The trouble with describing the music of an unfamiliar composer is that one reverts to comparisons with better-known ones – as if originality of voice is given only to those whose music has crossed the fickle threshold of popular taste.

With the Concert Overture which opens the disc, one can possibly be excused this, for if any music ever sounded like a Richard Strauss tone poem, this does. From its boisterous opening to its triumphal conclusion, it is a feast of Straussian gestures and ideas, a wonderful orchestral romp and a stirring musical journey. And this is what Szymanowski intended, for in 1904 when he wrote it, Richard Strauss was the dominant figure. If the booklet notes are to be believed, Szymanowski deliberately aped the style of Strauss “as a provocation to the, in his view, completely fossilized structures of Polish music”.

At this point we must break off to mention those booklet notes, tightly compressed into a distinctly unappealing booklet which seems designed to put off potential buyers. Christian Heindl’s German text is dense enough, striving to place Szymanowksi in some sort of context with Polish music at the start of the last century. But the English translation (claiming to be the work of one Ian Mansfield) is a disgrace. Seeming to have done little more than run the original German through a free online translator, and not even having made the effort to check the spelling afterwards, Mansfield comes up with such incoherent nonsense as; “he ranks as one of the many tone wolves and practically outsiders in music”, “the composer instrumented the cycle for chamber orchestra”, and “meaningful for the concert hall and fathoming it to the depths”.

Soprano Marisol Montalvo is, thankfully, infinitely more eloquent in the cycle of five songs, Slopiewnie, which bears the same opus number as Szymanowski’s great opera, King Roger but is otherwise unconnected. Exotic, sometimes harmonically brittle, sparsely orchestrated but highly effective, these are a world away from the lush world of Strauss’s orchestral songs and present a musical voice which is both distinctive and accomplished. There is nothing identifiably Polish about these settings of Polish texts by Julian Tuwim, but the booklet note suggests the musical idiom is derived from Gorals, an ethnic group which “has its area of distribution in the Polish Tatra and the Beskids, but also in parts of Slovakia”. It also observes some stylistic parallels with Stravinsky and Les Noces. Montalvo has a pure, shining vocal quality with an innately focused sense of pitch.

The major work on the disc is the Fourth Symphony, subtitled Sinfonia Concertante, but which is, to all intents and purposes, a fully-fledged piano concerto. Szymanowski wrote the work for himself to play (although he dedicated it to Artur Rubinstein) and called it a Symphony to disguise his shortcomings as a concerto soloist. Ewa Kupiec is the fleet-fingered soloist, delivering the almost Ravelian delicacy of the first movement with a refreshingly light touch supported by the kind of clear-textured orchestration which seems such a feature of Szymanowski. Even as the movement builds up to its great climax, the feeling of delicacy and suppleness Kupiec brings to the performance is never lost, and Karl-Heinz Steffens seems to have an instinctive feel for the balance which comes across even when the recording engineers have done little to assist. A gentle, fluttering second movement introduces all manner of magical orchestral effects, much in the manner of a Bartók night-music movement but built around Polish rather than Hungarian folk songs. And in the final movement it is the spirit of Polish dances which seems to dominate in music that sounds like Ravel and Bartók holding hands but is, in reality, uniquely the voice of Szymanowski – stunning orchestral writing, impeccably crafted moments of climax and repose and an exotic musical language which is utterly enthralling. Steffens maintains a wonderfully incisive rhythmic momentum which his German players throw themselves into with great gusto.

The Nocturne and Tarantella is an orchestration, made two years after Szymanowski’s death by Grzegorz Fitelberg, of a work originally written for violin and piano. It draws attention to Szymanowski’s fondness for the exotic, combining Spanish and Italian elements in a scintillating dance-like display, where only the final cadence seems indicative of a composer not quite of the very first rank, but with a voice all his own.

– MusicWeb International (Marc Rochester)

Product Description:

  • Release Date: November 18, 2016

  • Catalog Number: C5280

  • UPC: 845221052809

  • Label: Capriccio

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Karol Szymanowski

  • Conductor: Karl-Heinz Steffens

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic Orchestra

  • Performer: Ewa Kupiec, Marisol Montalvo