All Music Guide

“To collect [folksongs] without a phonograph – until there’s something
better – is mad and criminal.” – Percy Grainger, 1907

It’s startling how music that no one knows gradually enters the repertory and becomes part of it – in the 1960s, the piano music of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski was considered quite exotic fare and very little of it was recorded. In the 1970s, pianists such as Martin Jones, Carol Rosenberger, Felicja Blumental and others made a number of pioneering efforts on his behalf. By this writing (July 2007) pieces such as Four Etudes Op. 4, Masques and Metopes are practically mainstream and his “complete” piano music has been recorded at least three times before young Korean pianist Sinae Lee has ventured forth, on her own dime, in a three year project to record them all herself. Undertaken between 2002 and 2005 in order to realize her doctorate in piano performance – what a doctoral thesis! – this is now released by the Divine Art Record Company for the public to enjoy.

Lee’s set is more “complete” than the others by virtue of three minutes; namely a never before recorded Prelude in C sharp minor from 1901. This is a startling find, as Szymanowski’s relatively modest known output for piano has been established for some time and, while the existence of other, particularly early, pieces has been postulated his worklist has proven stubbornly intractable to expansion. Szymanowski’s piano music covers his entire 35-year career as a composer and moves with, and at times, a little ahead of, the stream of musical developments current in his time. Lee moves right along with the composer – she is luxuriantly romantic in the early works, free flowing and dynamic in the Scriabin influenced middle works (check out what a wonderful job she does in “Calypso” from Metopes) and pithy, tart and perfectly timed in the more acerbic, whimsical late works.

While the “new” prelude is very attractive, you should get this set because it is such a terrific survey of Szymanowski’s works overall, a highly significant cycle within twentieth-century piano music. Lee’s sensitive and probing performances of Szymanowski provide a marvelous, fulfilling and informative way to spend four hours, and chances are the listener will not want to limit one’s exposure to Karol Szymanowski: The Complete Piano Music to just that.

—David Lewis