Classical CD Reviews

SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Works, Vol. 2 = Fantasia in C; Masques – Three Pieces for Piano; Mazurkas 1-4; Two Mazurkas – Anu Vehvilainen, p. – Alba

The piano music of Karol Szymanowski offers a series of challenges to the interpreter, much of which derives from having to balance the composer’s programmatic and nationalistic impulses with the technical demands.

Published on January 29, 2013

SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Works, Vol. 2 = Fantasia in C; Masques – Three Pieces for Piano; Mazurkas 1-4; Two Mazurkas – Anu Vehvilainen, p. – Alba

SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Works, Vol. 2 = Fantasia in C, Op. 14; Masques – Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 34; Mazurkas 1-4 from Op. 50; Two Mazurkas for Piano, Op. 62 – Anu Vehvilainen, p. – Alba ABCD 337, 58:00 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

The piano music of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) offers a series of challenges to the interpreter, much of which derives from having to balance the composer’s programmatic and nationalistic impulses with the technical demands of a style modally wrought from Liszt, Chopin, and Debussy. A case in point is the rarely performed Op. 14 Fantasia in C Major (1905), based on a poem entitled A Sketch for My Cain that traces the emotional and spiritual agonies of the Biblical first murderer. Utilizing the Wagnerian procedure of delaying the eventual tonic major, Szymanowski carves out a three-movement suite that connects, attacca, a series of stormy motives and dense, sprawling chords in octaves and thirds, alternately percussive and glittering. If the texture becomes “symphonic,” it likens the piano to an orchestral or even operatic score by the contemporary Richard Strauss, especially his Salome. More than once, there seem to be hints of Ravel’s “Scarbo” from Gaspard de la Nuit, especially as a calm deep bass progression will suddenly erupt with volcanic violence across the keyboard. Finnish pianist Anu Vehvilainen renders this mighty piece on her Steinway D (rec. 10 June 2010) with pungent energy.

Szymanowski’s Mediterranean excursions between 1911-1914 expanded his personal syntax beyond the Germanic influences – Wagner and R. Strauss – that had previously commanded his early Romantic style. Besides influences gleaned from impressionists Debussy and Ravel and even Stravinsky, Szymanowski allowed polytonal and bitonal harmonic structures to inform his knotty scores. An interest in international mythologies likewise permeates his work, and he alludes to watery places (much like Liszt) in Calypso, Nausicaa, The Fountain of Arethusa, and The Sirens’ Island. The 1915-1916 Masques, Op. 34 appeal to the Arabian Nights, the Celtic myth of Tristan and Isolde, and the Spanish rake Don Juan.  Sheherazade obviously invokes Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov in its color treatment of the Beethoven “fate” motif as it proceeds through exotic harmonies and tensions that convey the tale-spinner’s cunning  and her fear of execution, at once.

Tantris der Narr establishes in whirling chords and arpeggios a parody of Tristan from myth and Wagner; here, Tantris the Fool lives as an anagram of Tristan, but his companion is rather Husdent the faithful dog, not Isolde. A staccato main tune in graduated jerky step-wise motion yields to a middle section marked meno mosso. The writing proves virtuosic on its own terms, with brisk cross-rhythms and big slides and pounded chords. Don Juan’s Serenade is dedicated to pianist and bon vivant Artur Rubinstein.  Highly indicative of Debussy’s Spanish impulses, the rondo-like piece exudes an extroverted toccata aspect whose cascading trills and harmonic ambiguities point to the Don’s own sexual insecurities.

Ms. Vehvilainen concludes with two sets of Mazurkas from the prolific pen of the Szymanowski who takes his cues directly from Chopin and indirectly from Scriabin. Szymanowski addressed the folk form in the 1920s, preferring to make his contributions exotic, almost in the manner of Bartok, especially given the influences of the Tatras region in Szymanowski’s musical diction. The Op. 50 could be mistaken for Bartok’s Bulgarian studies in Mikrokosmos, but their national  character as triple-time Polish dances emerges in spite of the polyphonic layering. The highly accented No. 2 works its aggression out in A Major. The evocative No. 3 Moderato varies Chopin harmony and “modernizes” the affect with subtle, shifting staccati.  A study piece in B-flat Major, the No. 4 (Allegramente, risoluto) asks for large spans in the course of its serpentine melody. Its quirky rhythms and modality align this assertive piece with the Scriabin mazurkas and their own elusive mixture of musical styles.

Szymanowski ended his career with Two Mazurkas, Op. 62 (1933-1934). More liquid than national dance, the first (Allegretto grazioso) becomes obsessively repetitive even while its bittersweet progression wends its way in nostalgic riffs whose sadness reminds us of Brahms. Scriabin again whispers in Szymanowski’s ear in the second piece (Moderato), but the lively impulse might nod to Bartok. An element of modal plainchant informs the development, rife with pearly ornaments. The stately processional has an improvised character, touched by wistful reminiscence.

—Gary Lemco




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