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Thread: Szymanowski's Songs

  1. #1
    Captain of Water Music
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    Szymanowski's Songs




    Even being an enthusiastic fan of Szymanowski, I’d never gotten around to listening to his songs for voice and piano – until now. I really wish I hadn’t waited so long.

    The spiffy four-disc set of all of Szymanowski’s songs on Channel Classics is something of a revelation. Dozens and dozens (over 100 actually) of songs fill out the four discs, and they both shed new light on the composer’s artistry, and reinforce notions of his evolving music style. As with all of his other music, his early works tends to sound influenced by a mix of major figures of the time. One detects whiffs of Richard Strauss, for instance. Then his music takes on a more impressionistic, “exotic,” “eastern” influenced style, and finally he ends up influenced by the folk music of his own country and writes in a sparer style. Were one to listen to these songs chronologically, one could easily hear this.

    But the discs are not presented chronologically. Rather, the first disc is given over to songs for tenor, the second and fourth to songs for soprano, the third to mezzo soprano. Three of the singers are Polish, which helps their cause immensely, and the remaining singer is an American of Polish descent. I’ll start there, since she, Juliana Gondek, is probably the least strong singer on the disc. Her voice is generally pleasant enough, but she warbles a bit, and she’s prone to histrionics at times. That approach works well when she sings Bright Sheng, but Szymanowski is something else. She sings the Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin, so her traits are fully on display. Fortunately, her first mentioned tendency isn’t too obtrusive, and the second is masked by the perfumed music and text. Perhaps her exaggerated singing even helps a bit. In the later and earlier works her mannerisms detract a bit, but she also sings the English language setting of James Joyce poems, and she predictably handles those well. That’s why I write she is the least strong singer on display; I wouldn’t say she’s weak.

    Now to the meat of the disc. Tenor Piotr Beczała sings on the first disc, which is given over almost solely to early works. His rich tone and delivery suit the Straussian soundworld very well thank you, and he also produces more than enough beauty for one to luxuriate in. Possibly the highlight of his disc is a setting of five songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn which is both decidedly different than what Mahler wrote, but informed by similar ideas and traits. The third disc is given over the mezzo soprano Urzula Kryger, and she does an at times hypnotically good job. Her voice is richer than the sopranos of course, which creates a more sultry, more seductive sound, which helps Love Songs of Hafiz sound even better. Kryger’s nuance and tone make it almost too easy to just plop the disc in and escape to a luxuriant sonic landscape. Of course, what else would one want to do? The final disc has soprano Iwona Swobotka doing her thing, and a fine thing it is. Her voice is immediately alluring and attractive and bright and “feminine,” all of which help her deliver a knock-out complete version of the Songs of the Fairy Princess. Swobotka also sings the brief, three-song orchestral version on Simon Rattle’s most recent Szymanowski disc (and a fine one it is), but here she seems to sing with greater passion and abandon, and the lighter texture resulting from the more intimate setting allows her voice to become the primary focus of the music. Then when she handles something simpler, like the three Op 48 lullabies, she demonstrates admirable subtlety and beauty of tone.

    Two things are constant throughout all four discs. The first is pianist Reinild Mees. She does an absolutely splendid job accompanying the singers, presenting a not at all too obtrusive musical backdrop for the singers, though she’s no mere wallflower. When more strength is needed, she delivers, and her wonderfully varied tone makes me want to here her in some Debussy songs, or perhaps even some solo fare. The other constant is sound quality: it is top notch. It’s not at all flashy or artificial or pumped up. It sounds just like the listener is sitting a nice number of rows back from a recital in an intimate recital hall. It is, therefore, just about perfect.

    This makes three major Szymanowski purchases for me this year, the other two being Sinae Lee’s traversal of the complete piano works and Anna Kijanowska’s recording of the Mazurkas. It’s been a good year!

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

  2. #2
    Captain of Water Music Art Rock's Avatar
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    From my collection: a good introduction to his orchestral songs is the Naxos CD 8553688, that contains Love songs from Hafiz, Songs of the infatuated muezzin, Songs of a fairy-tale princess, Roxana's song and Three Kasprowicz songs. A very much underrated composer!

  3. #3
    Vice Admiral Virtuoso Mat's Avatar
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    Hey, about Szymanowski. Does anyone know where I can find an orchestral recording of etude in B flat minor? I have the original one (piano) and it's marvellous. Thanks in advance.

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