MusicWeb International

Not only has Szymanowski come to be regarded as the greatest composer of twentieth century Poland but also as one of the finest composers for the piano working in the early part of that century. He combines classicism with Romanticism and a personal trait of modernism, the latter language increasing as he matured. I remember being surprised at seeing his memorial in a Holy Cross Church in Warsaw, ironically the only part of the building, which survived Second World War bombing.

This CD, fascinatingly, covers the whole range of these styles from the Op 1 Preludes to the later Mazurkas, Op 62. All of these have been recorded before but this particular grouping of works is unique.

The Preludes show the composer’s indebtedness to, indeed love of, his fellow countryman Chopin, not just in the fact that his first Opus was a set of Preludes but also in the late romantic language in which many of them are couched. The Etudes are also Chopinesque in many ways, showing a slight development, with the famous Bb Minor one a stand out work. But the later Masques will remind listeners of figures like Scriabin, or late Debussy, perhaps even Messiaen, with their use of polytonality and other harmonic techniques, as in first of the Masques, the exotic ‘Scheherazade’ with its authentically oriental figurations. Szymanowski came a long way in a short time.

I have to say immediately that Barbara Karaskiewicz seems to have known Szymanowski and his language for a number of years and reading her biography it is clear that she started to play his music when she was just fifteen and took part in the Karol Szymanowski Competition with she was sixteen in 1997 winning a distinction. You are in safe hands with this CD. But that’s not to say that others have not achieved great things with this music.

Some of you may know the fine series by Martin Roscoe of the complete piano music of Szymanowski on Naxos. Volume 3 has a particularly virtuoso performance of the Etudes Op 33 written over ten years after the four recorded here.

Both Masques and the Two Mazurkas were recorded beautifully in 2008 by Roland Pöntinnen on BIS (CD1137) a disc I reviewed at the time and I have continued to enjoy his performance and the wonderful BIS sound ever since. But I have been quite shocked to discover that his recording of the Masques clips over a minute and a half off that of Maraskiewicz who I now see as much more expressive and sympathetic; and this is significant because the harmonies are so chromatically complex that thy need time to be assimilated and spaced. And although less complex, the Mazurkas are likewise half a minute quicker at the hands of Pöntinnen. Here however he emphasizes more the sense of the dance, and a greater feel for the music’s virtuosity and direction whereas the new recording is more distracted and dreamy.

The three Masques reminded a friend of mine of Sorabji, which is quite a claim, but I can see what she means especially in No 1 ‘Scheherazade’. No 2 is a remarkably harsh and brittle movement which uses the story of Tristan disguised on a visit to Isolde and not being recognized. (‘Tantris the Fool’) But No 3 may well bring to mind Granados or the Debussy (who also used the title ‘Masques’) of the ‘La Puerto del vino’ in his Preludes Book 2. It is subtitled ‘Serenade Don Juana’ and it is fascinating how Szymanowski conjures up the Iberian anti-hero so convincingly with almost vivid strumming guitars and clinking castanets, aided by a very punctilious and evocative performance.

The booklet is, for me, a model of what I like to see and read. There is background to the composer’s life and a detailed study of each piece, which, however, never gets overly technical, therefore not alienating some readers. There are photographs of the composer, a translation of Anna Stachura’s essay from Polish into English and a useful biography of Dr. Barbra Karaskiecz’s career. The recording is also ideal.

All in all this disc would make an ideal start for anyone coming anew to this fascinating composer.

—Gary Higginson