SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

SZYMANOWSKI: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4; Stabat Mater – Sally Matthews, sop./Ekaterina Gubanova, mezzo-sop./Toby Spence, tenor/Kostas Smoriginas, bass-bar./Denis Matsuev, p./London Sym. Orch. and Chorus/Valery Gergiev – LSO Live

LSO offers another in its stellar series of works by this essential composer.

Published on October 10, 2013

SZYMANOWSKI: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4; Stabat Mater – Sally Matthews, sop./Ekaterina Gubanova, mezzo-sop./Toby Spence, tenor/Kostas Smoriginas, bass-bar./Denis Matsuev, p./London Sym. Orch. and Chorus/Valery Gergiev – LSO Live

KAROL SZYMANOWSKI: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4; Stabat Mater – Sally Matthews, sop./Ekaterina Gubanova, mezzo-sop./Toby Spence, tenor/Kostas Smoriginas, bass-bar./Denis Matsuev, p./London Sym. Orch. and Chorus/Valery Gergiev – LSO Live multichannel SACD LSO0739, 69:53 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], (9/10/13) ****:

Karol Szymanowski was one of the early twentieth century’s most fascinating – and unjustly neglected – composers. He wrote most of his greatest music during the height of World War I and gathered the sights and sounds of his many travels to Italy, Africa and beyond. Szymanowski was, for the time, a true experimenter with a gift for exotic orchestrations and lush, open and chromatic harmonies. For the Polish people, he was respected and considered a cultural gift similar to Chopin. However, he also had the misfortune to live in a country under German occupation which had a stagnant cultural life, with little to no professional orchestras until much later. Even the occupying Germans held the radical Viennese; such as Webern and Schoenberg, in higher esteem than the new wave Polish composers such as Szymanowski or Bacewicz.

This wonderful recording by the London Symphony, and its previous recording of Szymanowski’s Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, gives a very rewarding glimpse into the beauty and imagery of Szymanowski’s music. My first exposure to his music was his opera on ancient Mediterranean rule, King Roger. I was taken immediately and sought more recordings including the Symphony No. 3, “Song of the Night.”

This work, featuring tenor, chorus and orchestra, is based on a poem by the Sufi poet Rumi. The text is an ode to the universe and to life, said to have been written as the poet gazed up at the vast night sky. Szymanowski’s music is suitably vast and lush. A central dance in triple meter leads to a soaring celestial conclusion. I like this work a great deal and I would suggest this piece as anyone’s initial introduction to his music. (An old LP with Antal Dorati and the Detroit Symphony used to be – for me – the definitive performance.)

I was not familiar with the Symphony No. 4. Szymanowski waited sixteen years after the “Song of the Night” before writing his next symphony. The fourth, subtitled a “Symphonie Concertante” is, basically, a piano concerto. It is said that this work bears some resemblance to the Bartok Third Concerto, in that both works are written a bit more simply than piano concerti usually offer, long on lyrical line and a pared down orchestration and less on technical flourish. Szymanowski, himself, considered the third movement, patterned after a Polish oberek (a fast, violent dance), the focal point of the work. This is, indeed, an exciting and captivating work that offers some sharp contrast to the world of the Symphony No. 3.

Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater is another find for me and represents the composer’s devout Catholic side as well as his reverence for traditional peasant music. Written for a Polish religious ceremony, the choral and solo writing captures the poignancy of the text about the sorrow of Mary, the mother of Jesus at the Crucifixion, quite well. Szymanowski does utilize a smaller orchestra and a spare, open choral sound that the average church-attending Pole could relate to. This is a compact but very beautiful work.

The sound in this SACD is very good indeed, and the forces of the LSO and chorus under Valery Gergiev perform wonderfully. Kudos to all of them for bringing the music of Szymanowski to our attention. I think this recording makes an excellent introduction to his music. If you already have the equally impressive recording of the first two symphonies with Gergiev and London (also on LSO Live) this one is an essential addition.

—Daniel Coombs




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