Recording of the Month November 2006
For all readers interested in Szymanowski, this astounding set is as essential a purchase as the acclaimed Simon Rattle/EMI recordings of the orchestral works, and it is the most important collection ever to have been released of Szymanowski’s piano music.
These fine recordings were brought to my attention before the decision to license them for release was taken by Divine Art. I have been listening to them frequently during the six months preceding their official date of issue. In May I was sent copies of the recordings by the company and was asked to offer an opinion, though I was not told who the performer was, nor was I given any biographical information. I wrote back with enthusiasm, speculating that the intelligence and logic of the playing indicated that the anonymous artist was a scholar-pianist who probably combined playing with Ph. D study – and so it proves, as the booklet notes tell us that the Korean pianist Sinae Lee prepared her performances in conjunction with a Ph. D on the composer’s piano music. This is her debut commercial recording.
Miss Lee’s achievement can be best appreciated in the context of the standard of previous recordings of this repertoire. Amongst her piano teachers is Philip Jenkins, whose own thoughtful LP recording of Szymanowski’s Third Sonata was issued in 1980 (Gaudeamus KRS37); this masterpiece has also been well served in a recent recording for Virgin Classics by Piotr Anderszewski. Unfortunately, with the honourable exception of a handful of recordings such as these, the discography of Szymanowski’s solo piano music over the decades has been undistinguished, and a major loss is that there have been no recordings of this repertoire by some of the great pianists who have expressed enthusiasm for it (such as Vladimir Horowitz, Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Ogdon). The weakness of the Szymanowski solo piano music discography has not been apparent to the general public as the true state of affairs has been inadvertently covered up by well-meaning reviewers who have assessed recordings without the benefit of a score to check whether the pianists in question are observing professional standards. Most recordings have either been tentative and cautious due to the pianists’ lack of assimilation of the music’s complexities, or inaccurate due to the omission (or blurring) of many of the notes in order to keep up the momentum. In some instances what has been presented for public consumption on CD has been little more than amateurish bluffing. In Martin Jones’ 4 CD set of the complete piano music for Nimbus Records (inferior to his previous Argo recordings on LP), it sounded as though these recordings needed further preparation. Despite some laudatory reviews in the musical press by critics, these recordings constitute a misrepresentation of some of the most refined piano works in the twentieth-century piano repertoire.
Karol Szymanowski himself was evidently aware of the difficulties involved in playing his music, as he tolerated simplifications in performances by Artur Rubinstein, an artist whose advocacy he valued. The composer Andrzej Panufnik knew Szymanowski personally, and when I visited Sir Andrzej at his home in 1989, he told me that in the late 1920s or 1930s he had heard a performance by Rubinstein of the Third Sonata – though I suspect it was more likely to have been a performance of the Second – with, as Panufnik put it, ‘30% of the notes missed out’. Apart from two recordings of the Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra, the only recordings extant of Rubinstein playing Szymanowski are his 1946 and 1961 versions of nos. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 from the Mazurkas op. 50. These strongly characterised performances are incomparable and the only performances in Sinae Lee’s set where I felt characterisation was lacking were her accounts of these mazurkas. Nevertheless, taking second place to Rubinstein in Polish music is hardly a fate to be ashamed of.
There are no simplifications in Miss Lee’s recordings. A distinctive feature of her set is that each composition has been prepared with an attention to detail which is often lacking in ‘complete’ editions of any composer’s music. Sometimes when an artist is recording a composer’s entire piano output an element of production-line learning can be perceived in the resulting interpretations, with the works homogenised. In the Divine Art set there is no suspicion of this, as each work is presented as a individual musical experience, and there is no doubt that each piece has been as carefully prepared as it would have been had Miss Lee been recording that single work alone. Given the complexity of much of the music, the amount of preparation time which this will have necessitated is daunting. Sinae Lee deserves our respect for having shown the integrity to approach her Szymanowski project with such painstaking observance of detail.
Technically, Miss Lee offers playing which is difficult to fault even by the most uncompromising technical standards. Readers who admire the high-quality finish of such contemporary master pianists as Stephen Hough, Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes will be fully satisfied with the standards on offer here, as there is a comparable sense of the difficulties of the often dense textures being mastered to such an extent that the complexities are no longer a barrier, so that the attention of the performer can be focused entirely on imaginative interpretation. The subsidiary elements of the texture are controlled as carefully as the more prominent aspects of the keyboard writing. This is often not the case with recordings of late-Romantic repertoire, though it is a flaw rarely remarked upon by critics, even by the self-styled ‘piano specialists’ who write with what they consider to be authoritative judgement for the glossy reviewing magazines.
There are only a handful of minor criticisms which I would make of the set. I was bothered by the occasional use of the old-style ‘left hand before right’ mannerism (especially in the C sharp minor prelude of 1901, receiving its world premiere recording here), but this affects only a tiny proportion of the total playing. Also noticeable is that Miss Lee evidently has small hands as she often has to arpeggiate large left-hand chords in an upwards direction, so sometimes the bass line is lost as a result of the sustaining pedal being changed at the end of the upward arpeggiation, by which time the bass note of a chord has already been released in order for the left hand to reach the top note. Occasionally there are some insignificant wrong notes or places where the articulation is not quite precise (such as in the introduction to the fugue of the Second Sonata, where the right hand chords are reduced to plain octaves in the passage immediately preceding the silence at 13:28). There are worse errors in all other commercial recordings of Szymanowski’s piano music that I have heard (including my own, issued in 1999) and a direct A/B comparison with other recordings is always to Sinae Lee’s advantage. The sound quality is vivid, and it is to the pianist’s credit that even in such fearsomely intricate pieces as the Op. 33 studies her playing is precise enough to withstand the scrutiny of the relatively close-up microphone positioning. The sound is analytical enough even to document her subtle pedalling by faithfully reproducing the sound of the felt of the dampers touching the strings – by contrast, the excessively resonant acoustics of the Nimbus recordings help to blur and cover over some of the worst aspects of the playing.
Readers unfamiliar with Szymanowski’s idiom may wonder whether the music will appeal to them and will want to know what his music ‘sounds like’. Ultimately, Szymanowski’s music is too individual to sound like that of any other composer, so it is facile to try to compare his style to those of other composers. If one is absolutely determined to search for influences the most feasible are Chopin (in the early works), Scriabin (in the middle period pieces), with occasional suggestions of the tough, abrasive folk-quality of Bartók in the late mazurkas. The nature of the virtuosity required may remind one of the demands of some of Ravel’s piano music (Gaspard de la Nuit in particular), but these vague comparisons are merely to give readers a flavour of the music. One must not press parallels too closely as Szymanowski’s style is unique. To generalise further, any listener who reacts positively to late-Romantic piano music or to French composers at the start of the twentieth-century cannot fail to enjoy this set. A great deal of the piano music is accessible on first hearing and newcomers to Szymanowski’s music would do well to start with this set, beginning by exploring the earliest works on CD 1 and gradually progressing to the later ones; they should also hear at least some of the Simon Rattle recordings on EMI with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, priority perhaps being given to the Third Symphony, the Fourth Symphony (also known as the Sinfonia Concertante) and the violin concerti, recorded with Thomas Zehetmair as soloist.
I would urge readers who are already familiar with recordings of Szymanowski’s piano music to buy this set, as many of the keyboard textures are here rendered transparent in a manner not achieved in other recordings, and the performances maintain an ideal balance between relaxed atmospheric playing and the impulsive drive and energy which is necessary if these elaborate works are not to sound directionless. I have not considered it necessary to discuss individual performances in this review because it is difficult to indicate which are ‘highlights’ of this set when all of the performances are of equal quality.
If this 4 CD set had been offered as four separate discs at full price it would still have been well worth the financial outlay, so as a budget-price ‘four for the price of two’ issue it becomes an amazing bargain, comparable in price with the cheap Naxos recordings, but superior to them. Divine Art’s presentation is first class, the four CDs being housed within two slimline cases contained within an outer cardboard slipcase. The booklets feature extensive informative notes (in English language only) by Alistair Wightman, a leading Szymanowski expert and the author of highly-regarded books on the composer. This product is fully comparable in quality with the standards we are accustomed to from larger companies such as Hyperion, Chandos or the multinationals.
The supporting team involved in making the recording is a strong one. The pianist Philip Jenkins (mentioned earlier) is the producer, and it is an obvious advantage to have a pianist with personal experience of the challenges of playing Szymanowski assisting the recording process. Mastering and post-production has been taken care of by Paul Baily, best known for his work on EMI reissues and one of the most exacting and precise sound technicians I have had the good fortune to work with. Good sound quality has been achieved by the recording engineers, Graham Kennedy and Kim Planert. Listeners may be interested to learn that the concert hall in Glasgow used for this recording is identical in every detail to the West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge which was designed by the same architects and which has been used for a number of piano recordings by the large multi-national companies.
I suspect that many professional pianists will be mightily impressed by these recordings. Sinae Lee’s release sets new standards for the performance of Szymanowski’s piano music, and her quest for accuracy has not in any way inhibited her playing’s wonderful sense of spontaneity. I am confident that any listeners responsive to late-Romantic music who buy this superb set will share my enthusiasm for it.
“This is a most lovely disc and a most welcome addition to the Christmas market and one that would grace anyone’s household over the festive season.” (@BMusicSociety) #ChristmasCarols #Christmasmusic ow.ly/U5xO30h4L1Y pic.twitter.com/hU8K…
“While you’re justifiably feeling good about yourself for supporting a very worthy cause, you’ll also be enjoying an immensely accomplished album. (#Fanfare) #Romantic #clarinet #contemporaryclassical divineartrecords.com…