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Recordings

Karol Szymanowski: Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess; Harnasie; Love Songs of Hafiz.
04 Jul 2007

SZYMANOWSKI: Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess; Harnasie; Love Songs of Hafiz

The Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) is one of more engaging composers of the early twentieth century.

Karol Szymanowski: Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess; Harnasie; Love Songs of Hafiz.

Iwona Sobotka, soprano; Timothy Robinson, tenor; Katarina Karnéus, mezzo soprano; City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (cond.)

EMI Classics 0094636443522 [CD]

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While he wrote in several genres, the works that involve orchestra are evocatively colorful and those with voice quite soaring. This single CD includes some of Szymanowski’s finest works, two orchestral song cycles, the three Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess, op. 31 (1933), and the Love Songs of Hafiz, op. 26 (1914), along with the ballet-pantomime Harnasie, op. 55 (1935). The latter work, regarded as one of his masterpieces, resembles more a cantata with its use of chorus and solo tenor. Conceived in two parts, Harnasie is an atmospheric piece that deals with the abduction of a bride from her wedding by the robber Harnaś and his eventual taking her as his not unwilling bride. The story is set in the Tatra area of Poland, and as such makes use of evoking local color through melodic and thematic motifs and also its sensitive and highly colorful orchestration. It is a tour-de-force that is highly dramatic when executed with the precision that Sir Simon Rattle brings to this performance.

The first part of the work sets the stage for the action, with the various pieces establishing the sonic and timbral idiom Szymanowski conceived for the work. It is more symphonic than the second part, which opens with a striking depiction of the Polish wedding scene. That scene makes use of choral forces that capture the mood well in this particular recording. The stark open sonorities suggest the kind of eastern European ritual that Stravinsky captured in more sustained fashion in Les noces. Harnasie is a different kind of work, and its musical narrative makes use of other impulses in its structure. The entrance of the bride, for example, brings into the wedding scene elements from the first part of the work, and the stylized songs and dances that follow bring make use of elements related to Polish culture. Rattle allows these elements to emerge clearly and without artifice. He brings to the score a sense of narrative that creates the seamless quality Szymanowski intended in the score. The sometimes unique scorings are articulated clearly and underscore the melodic and rhythmic ideas that Szymanowski develops in this complex yet accessible work.

With the final scene, the solo tenor voice that belongs to the character of the robbers’ leader Harnaś poses the question that brings about the dénouement. This brief number is the critical element that must strike the right tone in its function as the raison d’être for the entire piece. Harnaś asks the bride whether she wants to see him or another, presumably the intended groom (“Powiydyzze mi powiydz / do uska prawego, / cy mnie rada widzis, cy kogo innegi?”) and, in this single piece, Szymanowski brings the work to its dramatic conclusion. Robinson’s interpretation is moving, with the florid line expressing the passionate side of the Polish robber.

The two orchestral song cycles included with Harnasie are equally masterful works. The first, the Songs for a Fairy-tale Princess are three highly ornate works that demand the kind of accomplished coloratura that Iwona Sobotka brings to this performance. The topics of the songs are hardly exotic: “The Lonely Moon,” “The Nightingale,” and “Dance.” Yet the music conveys an exotic quality in the elaborate, almost improvisatory-sounding lines. In contrast to the extended harmonic idiom Szymanowski used earlier in his career, the music seems related to impressionism and more Eastern-influenced melodic patterns. While its underlying structure is diatonic, the details suggest more remote musical associations.

In a similar way the Love Songs of Hafiz belong to the same world as the Songs for a Fair-Tale Princess. The texts of the Love Songs of Hafiz are derived from the interpretations of Persian verse by the German poet Hans Bethge, the author Die chinesische Flöte, which Mahler used for his orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. In these Polish translations of the Bethge’s German verse, nothing is lost in the linguistic shifts. These are poems that bring the Eastern world to West through the brilliant musical mind of Szymanowski. More adventurous, perhaps, such the post-Romanticism of Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie, Szymanowski’s set of eight songs are a profoundly moving work. Rattle brings a fine interpretation to this recording, which benefits from the elegant voice of Katarina Karnéus. Her low range is burnished and she offers an even tone in the passages that require a higher and–at times–sustained tessitura. Unquestionably lyric in approaching this piece, Karnéus also demonstates her capacity for dramatic expression in interpreting this work.

Those who may not be familiar withSzymanowski’s music will find this recording to be an excellent introduction to his work. The performers with the City of Birmingham Symphony and Chorus offer are sensitive to his style, and with this choice of pieces. Rattle offers a masterful interpretation to some of Szymanowski’s finest compositions. The three works were were recorded in studio and date from three sessions, Harnasie from 23-25 October 2002, the Love Songs from Hafiz from 30 June 2004, and the Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess from 20 March 2006. While some may be familiar with these works through earlier recordings, these recent ones bear attention for the nuanced expression they bring to the scores. It is easy to recommend this recording not only for the choice of music included, but also its impressive execution.

James L. Zychowicz

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