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Recordings

Karol Szymanowski: Songs, Op. 31 and Op. 49.
17 Aug 2008

SZYMANOWSKI: Songs, Op. 31 and Op. 49.

The lyricism characteristic of the instrumental music of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) is at the core of his songs, and the two collections found on this recording represent his vocal music well.

Karol Szymanowski: Songs, Op. 31 and Op. 49.

Anna Mikołajczyk, soprano, Edward Wolanin, piano.

Dux 0547 [CD]

$18.99  Click to buy

The twenty songs of Rymy dzieciȩce, Op. 49 (Children’s Rhymes) are settings of poems by Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna that Szymanowski composed between 1922 and 1923. The texts published in both the original Polish and in a translation by J. Abramczuk and S. A. Witkowski, concern various aspects of childhood, yet contain a level of meaning that suggests an adult audience. The first song, “Before falling asleep” reveals an almost stream-of-consciousness list of the very thoughts that represent the narrator’s mind before retiring. That song contains some of the lush, impressionistic harmony that Szymanowski used in other music he composed at this time. The harmonic idiom helps to depict the state of mind in this poignant song. Elsewhere Szymanowski is overtly simpler, with rhythms that call to mind the various chants that are part of the spontaneous games of children in various cultures and, in this sense, convey a sense of universality that makes these Polish songs approachable. Such is the case with “How best to get rid of a hornet,” which transposes the relationships of the human child onto the insect in a way that resembles some of the poetry in the children’s section of the German-language collection of folk poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Yet not all the poetry demonstrates an innocent childhood. “Crafty Leiba,” with its use of childlike rhythms, reflects some Jewish stereotypes of the time. Details like these are the exception, though, and most of the songs are quite approachable. In most of them, the union of vocal line and accompaniment create a seamless ensemble in this set of miniatures.

The earlier collection of songs found here, Pieśni ksiȩźnicki z baśni, Op. 31 (Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess) may be more familiar in the version for voice an orchestra. As much as the latter setting contains nuances that put the work in the tradition of the nineteenth-century orchestral Lieder. Yet in the version with piano accompaniment the vocal line becomes the focus of attention, with its demanding vocal line that is redolent of modal inflections and improvistory-sounding passagi. Composed in 1915, almost a decade before his Children’s Rhymes, the Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess sounds, at times, like a later, more complex work. Certainly the longer texts of the six poems that comprise the cycle give the composer the opportunity to sustain the moods suggested by the verses and explore them. Thus, the intensity that Anna Mikołajczyk offers in her interpretations of the music provides a welcome dimension to this recording. As a native speaker, her knowledge of the texts and the idiomatic meanings supports the phrasing she brings to the music.

With the title of the work providing a frame for the cycle, the the Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess is an evocative work. Each poem suggests a mood or sentiment, but nowhere does the cycle have an explicit narrative. The first three settings convey the sense of sense of loss of or distance from the beloved of the princess. “The lonely moon,” “The nightingale,” and “Golden slippers” establish the situation at the outset of the cycle, where the lover is somehow absent, but nonetheless welcome. The sentiment emerges well in the “Golden slippers,” which Mikołajczyk renders gracefully, anticipating, as it were the optimistic conclusion of the cycle. “A dance” is another piece in which the sense of the text and the shape of the music work well together. In this recording, Mikołajczyk introduces the sense of physical movement to support the title, which resorting to any sort of exaggeration. It is a tasteful interpretation that demonstrates the subtleties that Mikołajczyk and Wolanin bring to Szymanowski’s music. They work well together in the last two songs of the cycle, with the conclusion, “A feast” resolving fittingly the emptiness that comes into each of the pieces that precede it. Likewise, the performance is appropriately celebratory, yet within the character of the cycle. Mikołajczyk and Wolanin establish the proper tone that brings some insights into the music, which deserves to be known better. Ultimately it may be performances like this one that will bring this work and the other cycle to audiences around the world.

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