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Thread: Sinae Lee Plays Szymanowski

  1. #1
    Captain of Water Music
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    Sinae Lee Plays Szymanowski

    Late last year I noticed a little blurb of an ad for a new recording of the complete piano music of Karol Szymanowski played by one Sinae Lee on the Divine Art label. I’d never seen reference to either, or at least I didn’t remember seeing either mentioned before, but since I’m always on the lookout for Szymanowski recordings of interest, my curiosity was piqued. On the to-buy list the set went. Then I read two very positive reviews of the set – one in Gramophone, one on MusicWeb – and straight to the top of the to-buy list the set went. In fact, I bought it mere minutes after reading the MusicWeb review. I shouldn’t have waited so long.

    For those who don’t know, as I suspect most who may read this may not (I didn’t prior to reading about the set), Ms Lee is a young Korean born and raised, and now Scottish educated, pianist working on her PhD at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Her PhD topic? The piano music of Karol Szymanowski. So she’s definitely got intimate knowledge of the composer’s scores. Does that translate to superior artistry, or to an academic take on the music? (For my purposes, “academic” would mean note-perfect, emotionally uninvolving performances obsessed with creating crystal clear snapshots of the music.) Certainly not the latter, that’s for sure. Indeed, as far as the three complete sets of Szyamnowski’s music go (or at least the three I am familiar with), Ms Lee’s is by some distance my favorite. Martins Roscoe and Jones, for all their commitment to the music and occasional flashes of brilliance or something approaching it, cannot compare overall.

    The first issue I faced was how to approach the recordings. Chronological, tracing the composer’s development and how the pianist adapts? Nah, I opted to jump around, and I started with a big, great work: Metopes, Op 29. I love this work, and here Martin Roscoe actually does very well, and Piotr Anderszewski much more than that. Indeed, since I first heard it, Anderszewski’s version has been my favorite. Ms Lee does not displace him, but she does offer a fine alternative take. Opening with The Isle of Sirens (I’ll start with anglicized names, but offer no guarantees I’ll continue), Lee shows her stripes. Her take, compared to Anderszewski, is lean, cleanly articulated, with fine dynamic gradation and power, and lucidity. (Note the word lucidity: it will show up again.) Hers is a more “modern” take compared to Anderszewski, not displaying, and perhaps actively eschewing the tonal meticulousness of the Pole, and emphasizing continuity. The massive climax doesn’t have the power of Anderszewski’s, nor does it sound as dreamy, or at least amorphous. Calypso opens with Scriabin-esque trills (think the 10th Sonata) of the clear and not-quite-hysterical variety. Her playing is pungent and alluring, but lacks the breadth and (comparative) lushness of Anderszewski’s take. It’s intense, but not ideally moody. Nausicaa ends the work on a strong note. Lee’s lucidity pays off here as she feverishly builds up the long dance to an almost berserk level, with a pounding climax both confused and ecstatic in nature, all while keeping the musical line intact. She winds the piece down in suitably moody fashion, flashing hints of yearning. Here’s it’s a toss up between Lee and Anderszewski, but suffice it to say I like this recording.

    After a monumental later work I opted for some earlier fare, just because. The Prelude in C sharp minor sounds like Chopin reinforced with Brahmsian heft and Lisztian panache, and is luxuriantly played. The 9 Preludes, Op 1 sound much the same, though they’re more directly influenced by Chopin. They’re quite appealing (not just) trifles. For instance, the 5th is a doozy, all power and drive, and the 6th is harmonically hazy, portending things to come in later works. (Like the Metopes.) The early Variations in B flat minor, Op 3 tread similar ground, but offer more hints of individuality, and include some dazzling music dazzlingly played. Not too surprisingly, the Etudes, Op 4 are much the same. Jumping to the later Etudes, Op 33, finds a similar overall approach delivered with much more individuality, sophistication, and variation. The 2nd is nicely dissonant and piquant, for instance. Again, Ms Lee’s lucid, lean-ish approach plays up the comparative modernity of the music, and I like it. In fact, hers is the best version of any of these works that I’ve heard.

    Next up was the early but substantial First Piano Sonata, Op 8. Again, Chopin’s influence permeates the music, but the music is also informed by a late romantic sensibility of the lush, decadent Strauss ‘n’ Mahler turn-of-the-century variety. In the Allegro moderato – agitato first movement one can also detect hints of Scriabin (diabolical passages of ascending figures thrusting towards the heavens), though they could be accidental. The second movement, and Adagio molto tranquillo e dolce definitely fits that description, though here Lee’s unerring clarity could have been helped by more liberal legato playing, however textually improper it may be. The Tempo di menuetto third movement sounds lovely and charming as played here, with quasi-hypnotic repeated figures and quasi-dazzling (mini-) flourishes. The work concludes with a cool, gloomy Adagio that gradually transfigures into a very serious, sometimes rather stiff fugue. Here Lee’s unerring clarity is a boon; she easily unfolds the dense, heavy writing and exposes all the musical goodness that can be exposed. This may not be Szymanowski’s greatest piano piece, but this is a pretty darned good recording of it. I’ve not heard better.

    About this time I figured it was time for more meaty works, and Masques, Op 34 seemed the right choice. Again Lee must be compared to Anderszewski. This time, though, the outcome is slightly different than before. Scheherazade opens with very Le gibet style droning with Lee’s right hand then piercing the haze with intriguing if unfocused figures to bewitch the listener. She then builds up the tension without ever releasing it. It’s luxuriant! It’s decadent! It’s gorgeous! It’s a seductive dance that at times sounds frantic, like just after 4’ in. Then a bracing, bruisingly powerful crescendo after 7’20” keeps one on edge as the heroine completes her seduction of the master. Tantris the Clown opens in spectacular fashion, somehow managing to actually evoke a musical image of a court jester. It’s rather silly yet stinging – nay, singeing. Lee’s clear staccato helps pack a violent, sarcastic wallop throughout the middle section of the piece. Lee’s tone and style isn’t as ravishing as Anderszewski’s, but it’s at least as compelling. The Serenade of Don Juan opens with a fast, masculine cadenza that segues to quasi-orchestral, overwrought romanticism tinged with nastiness and bile. Lee plays feverishly as is appropriate and delivers a rendition of the work that certainly equals and may even surpass Anderszewski’s. Best just to have both.

    I decided to finish off the Lee-Anderszewski comparison and cued up the Third Piano Sonata, Op 36. Lee plays the opening Presto in very quick, very nimble fashion, creating a hyper-Scriabin soundworld to start, then she plays the rest of the movement alternating between fevered and (nicely!) brittle passages and lightly perfumed musical exotica. The Adagio opens with bold, bracing chords before moving seamless into a dark ‘n’ hazy world of no little allure, then builds to a towering, massive, nearly pulverizing crescendo with notes aplenty. Whew! The little Scherzando is violent and unfurled with admirable clarity. The work ends with a great fugue, and here Lee definitely bests Anderszewski. Lee’s dexterous, vivid, physical playing generates uncommon excitement, and where Anderszewski can seem a bit stodgy, Lee is all lucidity and drive in her unyielding, spiky modernity. A masterful recording to be sure.

    Back to some early works. The Prelude and Fugue is a big, severe, Brahms-cum-early-Schoenberg affair – and that’s the Prelude! The fugue is unwaveringly serious and dense, and Lee pulls it off. The Variations on a Polish Them, Op 10 starts off with a lovely, refined theme possessed of melancholy and droopy reflection. The variations range from lyrically beautiful (the first) to athletic (third) to violently physical (the fourth, which almost veers into banging) to a funeral march (eighth) to a virtuoso show stopper (tenth). Lee is more than up to the challenge and imbues each little variation with significance. The Fantasy, Op 14 pushes boundaries in a Scriabin-esque fashion with liberal (some may say garish) dashes of Liszt thrown in. The massive, swelling climaxes, comparatively simple quiet passages, and Lee’s alternatively voluptuous and piercing delivery really make this work sound more significant than in other recordings. She’s got pretty much everything down.

    This feeling becomes concrete reality after listening to the fourth disc, which is given over to all of Szymanowski’s Mazurkas, both Op 50 and 62, a Romantic Waltz, and Four Polish Dances. To the Op 50 Mazurkas first: these are not Chopin’s Mazurkas. No, Szymanowski makes them his own. After years of heavy-duty romanticism, Szymanowski seemed content to blend actual folk music elements with a super refined compositional technique to create rhythmically crisp, often melodically sparse, modern yet time period non-specific pieces. Lee’s incisive, transparent, energetic delivery is just about perfect in every instance. I’ve not heard Marc Andre Hamelin’s take, but otherwise, Ms Lee’s is the best take I’ve heard of any of the works. Amazing. The Op 62 Mazurkas are more elusive, sounding like spiky Debussy combined with Szymanowski’s earlier styles. Oh, for 5-10 more compositional years from this composer! What could he have done? The Romantic Waltz is just a bit too pulverizing to really be danceable, and the other four dances – a Mazurek, Krakowiak, Oberek, and Polonaise – are highly stylized, supremely refined distillations of traditional forms filtered through a modern mind. Superb. They’re all superb.

    That leaves only the great Second Sonata, Op 21. Here Ms Lee does not disappoint. Not one bit. The opening Allegro assai – molto appassionato emerges as something of a last, super-heated gasp of romanticism, almost like a mix of Scriabin and Brahms on meth and ‘roids. (Or perhaps the keyboard equivalent of a Mahler symphony.) Lee positively tears into the piece, creating a monumental, sweeping piece of general romantic abandon – it’s balls out, abstract music of overwhelming power and frenetic energy. Lee’s lucidity keeps all in perspective though; this is no flailing at the keyboard. How to follow up such an opening movement? With a massive theme and variations movement of which even Beethoven would surely be proud. The movement starts relatively calmly with a beautiful Allegretto tranquillo theme, which then spins out into slow, rich, decadent variations; fast, intricate, dazzling variations; powerful, searing variation; and a fugue, of course. Lee brings to bear all hoer formidable clarity and understanding of the music to create the most musically satisfying version of the work I’ve heard. I still like Martin Roscoe enough to listen again, but Ms Lee is the standard bearer here.

    It should be clear that I like this set. A whole lot. Indeed, it’s still very early in 2007, but I’ll be surprised if I buy any solo piano recordings I like more than this. Of the three complete cycles of Szymanowski’s piano music, this is the one to own. Indeed, of all of the pianists I’ve heard play Szymanowski – Piotr Anderszewski, Martins Roscoe and Jones, Mikhail Rudy, Dennis Lee, Felicja Blumenthal, Carol Rosenberger (very poor – avoid it) – Lee, along with Anderszewski, is about as good as it gets. There are other pianists I’d like to hear play this music – Krystian Zimerman, of course, Georges Pludermacher, Michel Beroff (his accompaniment in the piano and violin works makes me want to hear more), and Steven Osborne, among others – but for now I’m happy. I’ve got a set that’s all I want and then some. What now for Ms Lee I wonder?


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    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  2. #2
    Captain of Water Music Ouled Nails's Avatar
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    Thanks, Todd. I have always enjoyed Szymanovski, perhaps more so in his piano works than his orchestral ones, and my discography is an incredible mess of old LP's and too few CD's. This set sounds like a nice way to upgrade. I'll be looking out for it.

  3. #3
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    A follow-up of sorts. No, Sinae Lee has not recorded the Fourth Symphony or violin and piano works yet – though I hope she does – but I found another superb disc of Szymanowski’s piano music that should be brought to light. I write of Anna Kijanowska’s 2004 recording of the complete Op 50 and Op 62 Mazurkas on Dux. Ms Lee and Ms Kijanowska share a few things in common. First, they appear to be around the same age (early to mid 30s); second, they’re both academics who focused on Szymanowski – in Kijanowska's case her PhD topic was the Mazurkas; third, they’ve both recorded some sparkling Szymanowski. Indeed, as much as I love Ms Lee’s take of the Mazurkas, I think Ms Kijanowska’s is better. Not night and day better, but better. Where Lee plays with drive and crisp incisiveness and a comparatively lean sonority, Kijanowska adds more color and nuance and flexibility. Her rhythmic inflections make the music flow and, well, dance better, too. The music sounds more specific, less general. These traits more or less permeate the disc. And the whole disc is one big highlight. Kijanowska can play with notable vitality (like 50/10) or with abundant subtlety and nuance (either Op 62), or anything in between. Throw in excellent sound, and for those who like or love this music, this disc is a must.



    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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