Szymanowski piano 4863007

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Piano Works
Préludes Op. 1 No. 1, 2, 7, 8 (1899-1900)
Masques Op. 34 (1915-16)
Mazurkas Op. 50. No. 13-16 (1924-5)
Variations on a Polish Folk Theme Op. 10 (1900-1904)
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
rec. 1994, Tivoli Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark (Masques); 2022, Fukuyama Hall of Art and Culture, Hiroshima, Japan

Zimerman is a master pianist. He makes comparatively few recordings, but even in the most recorded works his versions have a tendency to become benchmark versions, which stay in the catalogue as classics. I am thinking, for example, of his recordings of the Liszt Sonata, the Chopin Ballades and the Debussy Préludes. He has particular interest in the music of his own native Poland, not only Chopin but also Bacewicz, Lutosławski and, as here, Szymanowski. His recording of Szymanowski’s Mythes for violin and piano, with Kaja Danczowska, was made as long ago as 1980, but continues to hold its own. Now at last we have a recording of Szymanowski’s piano music from him. It has been long awaited.

This recording has been showered with praise everywhere. I am not going to resile from that, but I do need to point out two frustrations I have with it. First, the main work, Masques, was recorded back in 1994 but has sat in DG’s vault since then. This is its first issue – nearly thirty years later. Secondly, Masques is the only major work here. The rest of the recital, recorded recently, is of works which are either early or minor.

Having said that, I do not think any of them could possibly be better played. Zimerman is a player capable of enormous refinement but also of great power when this is required. The delicacy of his touch in the often intricate piano writing is a wonder. His pedalling is very subtle, often using the Steinway third pedal to sustain a chord against brief passages over it. His phrasing is subtle and expressive. And he has a sense of the whole piece, particularly necessary in the three longer pieces which constitute Masques.

This, the highlight of the disc, dates from the period of Szymanowski’s most important piano works: along with this triptych, there is the other one, Métopes, also the Op. 33 set of Studies and the third Piano Sonata. They all date from the period during the first World War when the composer was staying on the family estate in Poland – he had been found unfit for military service. By this time he  had left behind the somewhat derivative works of his first period and settled to a kind of enhanced impressionism. The two triptychs owe something to Ravel’s 1908 triptych Gaspard de la Nuit, and the idiom not only to that but also to Scriabin in Szymanowski’s fondness for filigree ornamentation, imposing statements as on the brass, and trills. The three works are Shéhérazade, Tantris le Bouffon and Sérenade de Don Juan.  (The second of these derives from a play parodying the legend of Tristan and Isolde.) They are character pieces rather than programme music and require a great deal of virtuosity for their realization, which here they receive.

This is preceded by four from the set of nine Préludes which were Szymanowski’s Op. 1. Not only were these the composer’s first acknowledged composition, but two of those Zimerman has chosen, 7 and 8, were written when the composer was only fourteen. Not surprisingly, all four show the influence of Chopin to such an extent that they are practically pastiche. Although beautifully played they are not really distinctive, which is hardly surprising.

After Masques we have four Mazurkas from the set of twenty which Szymanowski wrote in the 1920s. These are divided into groups, and those Zimerman has chosen form a distinct group within the whole set. By this time Szymanowski had abandoned impressionism and become fascinated by the folk music of the Tatra mountains. His mazurkas owe much more to them than to Chopin, and also something to Bartók, whose handling of folk music must have impressed Szymanowski. The writing is hard-edged, pungent and rhythmical, and Zimerman allows himself a very free rubato to bring out the changing moods of these pieces. They are attractive pieces but do not have the stature of the major works of the impressionist period.

We end with another early work. Although the Variations on a Polish Folk Theme is actually the composer’s Op. 10, it dates from his student days. Like the Préludes, it is pastiche Chopin, though the writing gets more adventurous as the work proceeds, Despite this, it is musically of little interest and I am surprised Zimerman chose this rather than another of the mature works for his recital.

The recordings, despite being made nearly thirty years apart, are well matched. The content of the booklet is helpful, but its presentation is not assisted by having the second half printed reversed out, white on beige. 

There are other Symanowski recitals with a better mix of pieces. Piotr Anderszewski on Virgin Classics has both the Masques and the Métopes, with the third sonata, while Cédric Tiberghien on Hyperion has the two triptychs with the 12 Studies Op. 33 and also the early  Four Studies Op 4. These are both excellent recitals. However, I have to admit that Zimerman’s playing is altogether wonderful and his disc is worth buying for Masques alone.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: David McDade (November 2022)

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