Channel Classics' complete edition of Karol Szymanowski's songs is an affectionate tribute to one of history's most stylistically wide-ranging composers. As informative as it is musically rewarding, it will be an important reference for anyone looking to familiarize themselves with the composer's chameleon-like catalog of music for solo voice and piano.
One only has to hear the Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin, Op. 42, the Seven Songs on poems of James Joyce (Op. 54), and the Songs of the Fairy Princess, Op. 31, to understand just how far-reaching Szymanowski was in his song writing. The "Muezzin" songs weave a tale of voyeuristic obsession together with the intonations of an Islamic crier. The Joyce songs are set in the original English, and sound like the work of a completely different imagination -- one that shies away from musical pictorialism; if the English prosody were more skillful, they could be confused with the work of any number of twentieth century American composers. And the Fairy Princess songs are a coloratura's dream -- more high-flying vocalizations than songs in the usual sense, creating atmosphere and fairy tale magic through the evocative power of the voice.
Of course those examples are the extremes. The majority of Szymanowski's songs are settings of Polish or German texts in a style that hovers beguilingly between the sounds of Hugo Wolf, Maurice Ravel, and Richard Strauss: harmonically adventurous, melodious, and pianistically intricate. Composed throughout his creative life, they reflect the work of a composer who was constantly trying new techniques and approaches, and who strove to stay relevant as times changed.
To realize this dizzying variety of songs, four singers are employed: tenor Piotr Bezcala, soprano Juliana Gondek, mezzo soprano Urszula Kryger, and soprano Iwona Sobotka, all accompanied by pianist Reinhild Mees. The decision to divide up the work pays big dividends, allowing each singer to take on the songs to which he/she is best suited, and giving listeners enough variety to make this collection sound happily unlike a catalog, and more like a series of well-constructed recitals. Mees and each of the singers is excellent: Mees' plays with the tonal scope, precision, and warmth to keep pace with Szymanowski's ever-changing musical landscape, and she is a consummate musical partner; Bezcala's clean, well-focused tenor voice puts an appealingly youthful face on the composer's earliest songs; Gondek tackles works in German, Polish, English, and French with proficient ease; Kryger has the perfect combination of gravitas and vocal authority to realize the sprawling, demanding "The Grave of Hafis"; and Sobotka revels in the high-flying trills of the Fairy Princess songs. It would be hard to imagine a more skillful or heartfelt survey.