With this reissue of 10 of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski's (1882-1937) most important works, EMI has made available in one boxed set of more than five and a half hours of music -- nearly, but not quite, all of the composer's works recorded by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Under Rattle's leadership, the orchestra and chorus have made something of a specialty of Szymanowski, and these performances demonstrate a sure grasp of the composer's styles, which echo Strauss, Mahler, Ravel, and Scriabin filtered through the sensibilities of the composer's eastern European roots and his profoundly romantic temperament. This collection, which includes pieces from the 1910s to the end of his life, offers a broad and generous introduction to Szymanowski's work, in superlative performances, with state-of-the-art engineering.
Szymanowski's opera King Roger has never found its way into the standard repertoire, but it remains an intriguing work with many fiercely loyal advocates, and its appeal is immediately obvious in its lush, colorful, and richly imagined music. The opera is hobbled by its dramatic structure and a weak ending, but the opera is a glorious musical ride. The soloists are for the most part very fine. Thomas Hampson is a solid and persuasive King Roger, singing with warmth and urgency. Elzbieta Szmytka's security and fullness in the punishingly high role of Queen Roxana are electrifying. Of the leads, only tenor Ryszard Minkiewicz as the Shepherd disappoints; he's merely adequate in a role that demands a powerful and charismatic presence.
Two of the composer's symphonies are represented in the set. His Third, "Song of the Night," which features a tenor soloist and chorus, sets poems by the Sufi mystic Rumi in two of its movements. The music is lush and ecstatic, and the performance here is ravishing. The Fourth Symphony is essentially a piano concerto. It's far more modest and less flashy than its predecessor and the opera, but it shares their eclectic post-Romanticism, expansiveness, and exotic, sometime eccentric orchestration. Leif Ove Andsnes plays the solo part with assurance and panache.
The 1923-1931 ballet Harnasie, like the Third Symphony, is scored for tenor, chorus, and orchestra. It's clearly narrative music, as aptly conceived for dramatic presentation as Stravinsky's ballets, whose influence can be detected both in its structure and in the new gestural and orchestrational freedom Szymanowski unleashed in this work. The score is flavored by folk music of the Carpathians, but Szymanowski's opulent late-Romantic harmonic vocabulary and sweeping melodies are still prominent and are brilliantly effective in the service of the drama.
Two song cycles, Love Songs of Hafiz, from 1911-1915, and from 1915, reveal Szymanowski's mastery of vocal writing, and create shapely and affecting dramatic miniatures. The Love Songs of Hafiz have a Mahlerian emotional directness and harmonic palette, but with a Slavic sensibility. The Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess are extravagantly ornamented, using the full range of vocal acrobatics available to a coloratura, as is appropriate for the regal subject. Szymanowski's orchestration, particularly in his inventive and prominent use of percussion, makes this music distinctively his own.
The Stabat Mater and Litany to the Virgin Mary are relatively late works and are more austere in tone, as their subject matter requires. Reflective moments of a cappella choral singing alternate with delicately accompanied vocal solos, but the music inhabits essentially the same harmonic landscape as the Third Symphony. While the symphony is characterized by an almost erotically charged ecstasy, the passions these pieces voice are expressions of intense grief or profound religious devotion.
The violin concertos, dating from 1916 and 1932 to 1933, were both written for the composer's friend, Pawel Kochanski. They are among the more unprepossessing works in this collection, with a delicacy of mood and restraint in orchestration that put them at the opposite of the composer's aesthetic from his extravagantly lush opera. They are strong, subtle works, and Thomas Zehetmair performs them in refined tone and articulation, but he tends to play down the folk elements that are especially evident in the second concerto. EMI's bargain-priced release should interest any fans of Szymanowski, as well as anyone who wants to get to know his work.