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Recordings

Szymanowski: Piano Music
26 Oct 2005

SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Music

Piotr Anderszewski is a talented young pianist, who makes Szymanowski’s music come alive in his recent recording of three of the composer’s major pieces.

Karol Szymanowski: Masques, Op.34; Piano Sonata No.3, Op.36; Métopes, Op.29.

Piotr Anderszewski, piano.

Virgin Classics 5457302 [CD]

 

Anderszewski’s performances of these works are compelling for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is his fine sense of style the composer’s style that he conveys so clearly. This is an important contribution that merits attention to both the performer and the literature he interprets so well.

For some Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) is the proverbial watershed between late nineteenth-century Romanticism and twentieth-century modernism, especially when it comes to musical developments in Poland. Szymanowski composed music for piano throughout his career, and the three pieces that Piotr Anderszewski recorded on this collection emerge from a three-year period between 1915 and 1917, and they look both backward and forward in the composer’s oeuvre.

Some of Szymanowski’s earlier compositions use traditional forms, albeit imbued with his unique content, and only later did he take inspiration from program music and impressionism. Along these lines, while the Third Piano Sonata is traditional in structure, the other two pieces contain extramusical elements that suggest images rather reach beyond music, with references to women from Homer’s Odyssey in Métopes and fictional personas like Sheherazade, Tristan, and Don Juan in Masques.

As character pieces, each of the Masques possesses an individuality that belongs to the descriptive title. The playfulness of the second piece, “Tantris le bouffon” (“Tantris [Tristan] the clown”) calls to mind the legendary episodes when Tristan reversed the syllables of his name and disguised himself as a clown so that he could return to King Mark’s court to catch a glimpse of Isolde. Not a literal retelling of the Tristan story, the title offers a clue to interpreting the music, which resembles a Scherzo in style and proportion – it is half the length of the more serious “Schéhérazade” that precedes it.

The image of Schéhérazade evokes various characterizations, from the romantic depiction of the storyteller’s persona by Rimsky-Korsakov in his four-movement symphonic poem to Ravel’s extended setting for voice and piano that subtly evokes the exotic – the other – and our attraction to it. In his “Schéhérazade” Szymanowski uses the solo piano to explore those exotic aspects of the character by developing various motifs and fragments throughout the piece. Starting with relatively brief elements, the composer arrives at increasingly longer themes that are the subjective, in turn, of further development in the central section of the piece. Once he has given those ideas shape, he allows the music to dissolve into shorter fragments that call to mind the way the piece began.

The music of “Schéhérazade” has a parallel in the last of his Masques, the piece entitled “Sérénade de Don Juan.” Again, this calls to mind the various depictions of the Don and, overtly, suggests the strumming of a guitar. This approach frames his rondo-like form of the pieces that returns to the same theme. If a programmatic association must be given, it is the insistent return to the same theme, which can be likened to Don Juan’s incorrigible nature. More than program music, the “Sérénade” demands a solid interpretation, which Anderszewski provides in his fine performance this piece and the others in the set.

Similarly evocative, the Métopes also consist of three pieces, each referring to women in The Odyssey. The architectural term “métope” refers to the spaces between the triglyphs on a Doric frieze and implies something significant in the linkages. While Szymanowski is nowhere explicit about his use of the term, he offers points of departure in the descriptive titles for the three pieces in this set. The first, “L’île des sirenes” evokes French impressionism with its use of whole-tone sonorities and goes even further with passages that are polytonal. Its subtlety and ambiguity makes the piece attractive; and it not only reflects some of the music of Debussy, but also looks forward to some stylistic traits associated with Messiaen. In “Calypso” Szymanowski makes use of non-traditional tonality, but instead of the short ideas that permeate “L’île des sirenes” he uses longer themes in “Calypso” that recur as refrains. Of the three pieces, “Nausicaa” offers a clearer sense of form and less dissonant idiom. Nevertheless, Szymanowski makes use of colorful dissonances within the structure of this satisfying conclusion to Métopes.

Szymanowski’s Piano Sonata no. 3, op. 36, is a more abstract work in four movements. It contains no programmatic association, and is, instead, more formal in orientation. It is the latest of the three works on this CD, and in it Szymanowski evokes a kind of timeless modernism. The first movement is a traditional sonata that makes use of colorfully dissonant sonorities and extremes of register, while the second is a slow movement with continually full sonorities at various dynamic levels that require a sensitive performer to execute well. The third movement is essentially a Scherzo that puts other demands on the player with its mercurial themes and repeated-note figures. As a final movement, Szymanowski creates a modernist fugue that forms a satisfying conclusion to the Sonata. At times the music evokes the kind of sardonic style that would be later associated with Shostakovich. It is immediately engaging, and those unfamiliar with Szymanowski’s music may wish to start with this movement, which is one of the composer’s finest pieces.

As with his style in general, the musical idiom that Szymanowski uses for all three of the works included on this CD is rooted in tonality, but his mode of expression involves expressive dissonances, ostinatos, and other devices associated with early twentieth-century modernism. Szymanowski did not endorse any single technique in his music, but used various elements to create an individual idiom that reflects, at times, some aspects of French impressionism. At times, though, his use of percussive dissonances suggests some aspects of eastern European composers, like Béla Bartók. Formally, Szymanowski is rooted and tradition, and while he may blur the sectional divisions that would have been less ambiguous for a composer of the previous generation, the overall structure is nonetheless traditional. As innovative as it can be, Szymanowski’s music nonetheless accessible, albeit demanding for both the listener and performer.

In this recording the young Polish music Piotr Anderszewski (b. 1969) gives a convincing reading of all three pieces, which calls to mind the incisive style found in his other performances of more traditional repertoire, like Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and selected repertoire by Chopin. For those unfamiliar with Anderszewski’s playing, his recent recording of a selection of Chopin’s ballades, mazurkas, and polonaises (Virgin Classics CD 7243-5-45620-2) has much to recommend, including an incisive reading of the well-know Polonaise no. 6 in A-flat major, op. 53. The clarity that Anderszewski commands in the performance of this “Polonaise héroique” contributes to his effective interpretation of later recording of Szymanowski’s music. Yet his fascinating interpretation of Szymanowski’s stands apart, for its masterful approach to literate that clearly deserves to be heard more often in recitals. With this recording of Szymanowski’s music, Anderszewski has shown himself to be a performer who has much to offer.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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